Members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ education and judiciary committees have sent letters to 19 universities admonishing them for their poor record in letting students illegally download music and movies over their computer networks.

The letters, which mark the latest chapter in the ongoing campaign against digital piracy on college campuses, also ask for information about the schools’ anti-piracy policies.

Sent on May 1, the letters were signed by Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas; Howard Berman, D-Calif.; Howard Coble, R-N.C.; Buck McKeon, R-N.C.; and George Miller, D-Calif. The letters demand that the schools curb online piracy, or lawmakers “will be forced to act.”

“The fact that copyright piracy is not unique to college and university campuses is not an excuse for higher-education officials to fail to take reasonable steps neither to eliminate such activity nor to appropriately sanction such conduct when discovered,” the missives say.

The letters also ask the schools to fill out and return an attached “Survey of University Network and Data Integrity Practices.”

The lawmakers say their survey will help Congress determine what “best practices” need to be instituted to prevent online piracy, and it also will help assess whether Congress needs to advance legislation to ensure that illegal downloading “is no longer commonly associated with student life on some U.S. campuses.”

The letters target universities that have received the most copyright complaints from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which has stepped up its efforts this year to crack down on digital piracy by college students. (See AP: Music companies targeting colleges: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=6876.)

The letters cite numerous studies done by the L.E.K. Group, Student Monitor, and other organizations, showing both a large loss in revenue from copyright infringement and a pattern in which college students are the most frequent violators. According to the letters, more than half of college students illegally download copyrighted music and movies.

Example of some of the questions asked on the survey include:

•Does your institution have an “acceptable use” policy that includes an unambiguous prohibition against illegal peer-to-peer file trafficking of copyrighted works?

•Please describe, in detail, your institution’s formal policy or procedure for processing and responding to notices of infringement received from copyright holders.

•Did your institution acquire knowledge of violations through any means other than by relying upon the receipt of notifications sent by copyright holders?

•Does your institution block, restrict, impede, or otherwise seek to limit student access to web sites known to distribute file-trafficking software?

The letters only ask for the survey to be filled out and sent back, but they show an increased interest by Congress in copyright infringement taking place over university networks, and they come on the heels of two recent Congressional hearings on the issue.

In September, the House education subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness held a hearing called “The Internet and the College Campus: How the Entertainment Industry and Higher Education are Working to Combat Illegal Piracy.” Six months later, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property held a hearing called “An Update–Piracy on University Networks.”

As one would expect, RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) were pleased to see the latest action by Congress.

“Illegal file trafficking is a shared problem for the entertainment industry and universities alike,” said Mitch Bainwol, RIAA chairman and CEO, in a statement. “We recognize the many pressing issues facing administrators today, but we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to theft on such a massive scale. After extensive hearings and inquiry, members of Congress are right to expect answers.”

“I am encouraged by the efforts of members of Congress and those college administrators who have recognized the severity of the problems associated with campus piracy and are proactively addressing the issue,” added Dan Glickman, MPAA chairman and CEO, in a separate statement.

As eSchool News reported earlier this month, the RIAA has begun sending “pre-litigation” letters to college students who are suspected of illegally downloading copyrighted music (see RIAA looks to change students’ tune: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=7051). These pre-litigation letters offer to settle with students for about $8 per song–much less than the $750 per track the group says it could recover in a lawsuit, but still a pricey sum for students caught downloading songs illegally.

Jim Davis, associate vice chancellor for information technology at the University of California-Los Angeles, one of the schools receiving a letter from Congress, said UCLA takes steps to warn students about digital piracy.

“We believe this is a student-life issue rather than a technology issue and consider repeat offenses as a key measurement,” said Davis. “With this view, the program at UCLA is proactive, using a first notice as a ‘teachable moment.’ Even though UCLA has a new wave of students each year, the program has resulted in a consistently low number of repeat offenders over the last several years. We also provide our students with legal alternatives to file-sharing.”

Besides UCLA, other schools receiving the letters were Boston University, Columbia University, Duke University, Howard University, Michigan State University, North Carolina State University, Ohio University, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, University of Massachusetts at Boston, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, University of South Carolina, University of Tennessee, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Vanderbilt University, and Purdue University.

The Congressional survey’s questions are based on policies set at the universities on or before April 26. Lawmakers have asked for responses by May 31.

Links:

House Judiciary Committee
http://judiciary.house.gov

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