Administrators and IT chiefs at public universities nationwide say the recording industry’s search for students accused of online piracy is cutting into their faculty’s work day. In recent months, some universities have refused to forward "pre-litigation" letters to students offering them a settlement to avoid further legal action from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Forwarding these documents is not a legal responsibility of the college, administrators say, and tracking down students who might have downloaded music or movies illegally is time-consuming, forcing IT specialists to comb through an enormous university network, pinpoint specific illegal actions, and find students.
"This is between the recording industry and the people who may be violating their copyrights," said Brian Rust, marketing manager of the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Department of Information Technology, which has seen a steady increase of subpoenas and "cease-and-desist" notices forwarded from RIAA officials in recent years. "But public institutions are an easy target. We’re very transparent about access to our network."
Higher education has been a primary ally in the recording industry’s fight against online piracy, but over the last year, university officials say tension has mounted.
Filtering or monitoring technologies designed to spot incidents of illegal downloads have forced many colleges to assign full-time employees the job of tracking down the IP addresses of network users who might have violated copyright laws, find out if those users are still enrolled in the university, and make sure the alleged violators receive notice that the RIAA is looking for them. The software has been installed at campuses across the country after the recording industry’s intensive lobbying effort for better network monitoring.
Denise Stephens, vice provost for information services and chief information officer at the University of Kansas, said the school decided to stop forwarding pre-litigation papers to students because the practice did not fit the mission of the college.
"We really had to make a decision philosophically about what our role was in this whole issue," said Stephens, who also has seen a rise in RIAA "cease-and-desist" notices. "We’d be acting as a go-between for an external party seeking to get information about our students. … We decided that was not our role."
Stephens insisted that Kansas’ new policy was not intended to pick a fight with the RIAA. She stressed that the university maintains "a zero-tolerance [file-sharing] policy," stripping students and faculty of their network access privileges in they are found guilty of internet piracy.
"This is not an effort to thumb our nose at anyone," she said.
The RIAA did not return messages left by eSchool News. In courtroom arguments and media reports over the last year, however, the group has argued that compliance with subpoenas has not been a burden to universities in the past, so it should not be considered a burden now. But higher-education officials insist compliance with the RIAA is requiring too much of their time as the organization’s anti-piracy campaign has become more rigorous.
Receiving and forwarding pre-litigation documents, Stephens said, was eating into staff members’ work schedules and regularly overwhelming some employees.
"We had a person for whom this was becoming a full-time job," she said. "The overhead costs for us were not an acceptable burden."
Unlike the University of Kansas, Wisconsin officials said students found to have downloaded music illegally are not booted off the school’s network automatically, but could face other disciplinary measures. Rust, the university’s IT marketing manager, said its actions are administered on a case-by-case basis.
While the rising numbers of cease-and-desist notices and pre-litigation letters would suggest a rise in the frequency of illegal downloads on Wisconsin’s campus, Rust said that is not the case.
"[The RIAA] would lead you to believe that is because our institution has an increase in copyright violations," he said. "We feel that it’s due to their increasing efforts to scan the networks and send out notices."
University officials said pre-litigation letters are mailed to schools at an alarming pace during final exams. That is no accident, Rust said. In the midst of cramming and finishing last-minute term papers, he said, students are more likely to "settle and pay their money," as the pre-litigation documents suggest. Rust added that students who receive a letter forwarded from a university office might be misled into believing the college is recommending a settlement.
"They assume … that we’re basically recommending that they settle, when in fact, that may not be true," he said.
Campus officials interviewed by eSchool News said students had not raised much concern about the schools refusing to forward pre-litigation papers to them.
A spokeswoman for the Associated Students of Madison, the University of Wisconsin’s student government, said in an eMail message that the organization had not taken "an official position" on the university’s decision to stop mailing pre-litigation papers.
W.H. Oxendine Jr., executive director of the American Student Government Association, said the refusal to forward pre-litigation documents had not yet become a major issue among student governments.
"I can’t say that I have heard this issue being discussed by any of our members," Oxendine told eSchool News.