A music industry trade group is escalating its war on illegal music downloads, and students at 23 universities are the primary targets.

As eSchool News reported not long ago, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has cracked down on illegal music downloading and file-sharing on campus networks by sending thousands more complaints to colleges and universities this school year than it did last year (see: AP: Music companies targeting colleges). Now, the music industry trade group has gone a step further, sending what it calls “pre-litigation” letters to schools warning them that a copyright-infringement lawsuit against one of their students is forthcoming.

“Even with the impressive growth of the [legal digital music] marketplace, it’s not yet offsetting losses in physical sales. In order for that to happen, we have to make sure that the emerging digital marketplace has integrity and can realize its full potential,” said RIAA Chief Executive Officer Mitch Bainwol.

In late February, the RIAA sent out 400 pre-litigation settlement letters to 13 universities—such as Arizona State, Marshall, North Carolina State, and Ohio—informing the schools of impending legal action being taken against their students and requesting that the universities forward the letters to the appropriate network users.

On March 21, the group announced that it has launched a second wave of settlement letters, sending 405 letters to 23 universities, including Boston University, Columbia, Dartmouth College, DePaul, and Drexel.

“We take this opportunity to once again ask schools to be proactive, to step up and accept responsibility for the activity of their students on their network—not legal responsibility, but moral responsibility as educators and leaders transmitting values to their students,” said Cary Sherman, RIAA president. “Schools can offer legitimate music services and alternatives to illegal downloading. They can impose the appropriate disciplinary action for students found to be engaging in illegal activity. Most importantly, they can implement network technical solutions.”

The RIAA says its latest anti-piracy campaign actually adopts a more reasonable approach than in the past.

Before, the group would file what it called a “John Doe” infringement lawsuit against an unnamed defendant, then issue a subpoena to the university to learn the identity of the offender. Once it had established this identity, the group would follow up with a letter to the student and would begin settlement discussions.

Now, instead of simply filing lawsuits, the RIAA is giving students the chance to avoid having their names emerge as part of a lawsuit by allowing them to settle within 20 days before any litigation starts. The association says students who choose to settle immediately will not have to pay as much as they would in a lawsuit.

“We have added this capability because we heard often from those who have been caught in a lawsuit that they wanted a way to settle earlier in the process and wanted to avoid having anything be part of a public record in federal court,” said Steve Marks, RIAA’s executive vice president and general counsel. “We view this as a win-win-win that advances everybody’s interests; that is, the person caught, ours, and the university’s.”

So far, it looks like the tactic might be working—at least for the RIAA: Of the 400 letters sent out in February, 116 students responded and have settled with the association, it says. For those who did not respond, lawsuits are being prepared. (The RIAA would not discuss how much it has recovered through settlements, nor the average dollar amount of such deals.)

The RIAA’s latest campaign is “another reason why we encourage our students not to violate copyright laws,” Boston University spokesman Colin Riley told the Boston Herald. “We clearly tell students not to [illegally download].”

“This is a serious ethical, economic, and legal problem that affects not only the record and movie industry, but will cost all of us,” said Purdue University spokeswoman Jeanne Norberg in a statement on the school’s web site. “The university will have to bear considerable expense as the result of illegal practices—and we all are the university, whether students, faculty, or staff.”

Since the RIAA began its lawsuits, students and universities have been favorite targets of the group. “That’s where the piracy is taking place in the most rampant way,” said Bainwol. “The challenge here on college campuses is that there’s not a clear sense of risk, and we’re clearly trying to address that.”

Sherman suggested that universities might want to try one of the available software products that are intended to “maintain the integrity, security, and legal use of school computer systems without threatening student privacy.” These peer-to-peer traffic blockers can be designed either to block all peer-to-peer applications on a school’s network or only illegal traffic, Sherman said.

Some school leaders, however, say this approach is not an effective solution. At Purdue, for example, officials say peer-to-peer file sharing can be beneficial for sharing educational material, something many of these new software applications cannot distinguish.

“There are legitimate reasons for peer-to-peer file sharing,” said Norberg. “We’re recommending that peer to peer be disabled if you’re not using it for an educational purpose. Our technical people feel that the services that are currently available are too blunt an instrument to be used.”

Links:

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

Purdue University
http://www.purdue.edu