Students of at least four universities were among 754 computer users served with copyright infringement lawsuits by recording companies on Dec. 16, the latest round of legal action in the industry’s effort to squelch unauthorized swapping of music online.

Among the named defendants were 20 computer users suspected of swapping songs over university networks, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a trade group for the largest music companies.

The college and universities attended by students named in the lawsuits included the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University in New York, Old Dominion University, and State University of West Georgia.

As in previous cases, the new lawsuits were filed against “John Doe” defendants–identified only by their numeric internet protocol (IP) addresses. Music company lawyers must obtain the identity of defendants by issuing subpoenas to internet access providers.

The four universities are the latest to be served with subpoenas by the recording industry. In May, students at 21 universities were among another 532 people sued for illegally sharing digital music files online.

In response to the current legal problems faced by some of its students, spokeswoman Lisa Ledbetter said administrators at West Georgia have actively sought ways to reduce the amount of file-sharing across the school’s network.

“Information Technology Services at the State University of West Georgia takes numerous steps to avoid this misuse of the network,” she said.

Among these steps, technology administrators monitor network traffic in student residence halls, taking note of any unusual spikes in usage that could be triggered by instances of illegal file-swapping.

“Then they investigate such traffic to see what it is,” Ledbetter explained.

If it is illegal file-sharing, which is against university policy, the incident is turned over to the Office of Residence Life and the students involved are presented with cease and desist letters.

On a second offense, she said, students are cut off from using the network.

Though none of the universities were named as defendants in any of the most recent cases, and there is no indication whether lawyers for the music or movie industries eventually will target schools that permit illegal file-sharing themselves, content providers have made one thing clear: liability–in their eyes, at least–extends well beyond the user.

As recently as last week, copyright holders set their sights on operators of internet servers used to swap files online, sending a flurry of threatening letters that caused at least one popular file-sharing site to shut down its network.

A note posted on Suprnova.org, which facilitated sharing among users of the BitTorrent program, said the site was “closing down for good.” The collection of links to downloadable files–including music, movies, and books–was taken down.

“We are very sorry for this, but there was no other way, we have tried everything,” the statement said.

Reached via Suprnova.org’s chat room, the site’s anonymous operator refused to comment.

BitTorrent, which allows users to share large files online rather easily, has grown in popularity exponentially in the past year and now accounts for more than a third of all traffic on the internet, according to the research company Cachelogic. Last week, movie studios sued more than 100 operators of U.S. and European sites that host BitTorrent links but did not name the defendants.

The Motion Picture Association of America said it is planning similar action against operators of servers that direct data for the DirectConnect and eDonkey file-swapping services.

In all, recording companies have sued 7,704 computer users since September 2003.

To date, 1,475 defendants have settled their cases out of court, the RIAA said. Settlements in previous cases have averaged $3,000 each.

Links:

Recording Industry Association of America
http://www.riaa.org

Motion Picture Association of America
http://www.mpaa.org

Subpoena Defense
http://www.subpoenadefense.org