Students caught downloading penalized

DURHAM, N.H. – Last Thursday, 30 University of New Hampshire students received notice that the Recording Industry Association of America plans to file legal action against them because the students illegally shared copyrighted material over peer-to-peer networks.

The 30 UNH students are among 411 from 19 higher-education institutions nationwide that were targeted in the newest wave of the RIAA’s campaign against online music theft. The campaign specifically targets college campuses, which are considered by the organization to be the worst offenders of copyright infringement.

The pre-litigation letter notifies the recipient before charges are filed in order to give the accused an opportunity to “settle these claims as early as possible.” The recipient is given 20 calendar days to resolve the claim by paying a fee of $3,000 and thus avoiding federal court, where the minimum fine is $750 for each copyright recording infringement. The recipient can call a phone number or to go to where they can pay the fee over the internet. They accept all major credit cards.

That may seem steep, but it’s cheap considering that earlier this month a jury ordered Minnesota resident Jamie Thomas to pay $220,000 in damages to the RIAA for illegally sharing 24 files. Instead of paying 99 cents on iTunes, Thomas was ordered to pay $9,250 for each song.

“Regardless of your philosophical beliefs on the subject, the reality is people are getting nailed,” said Doug Green, manager of network services and security at UNH.

Because he is in charge of the university’s network, Green receives what are called Digital Millennium Copyright Act letters from organizations like the RIAA. These letters inform the Internet Service Provider that one IP address on the network is illegally sharing copyrighted material that belongs to one of the artists that the RIAA represents.

According to the RIAA’s website, they represent approximately 90 percent of all “legitimate sound recordings produced and sold in the United States.”

The university has decided that the responsible thing to do, as an ISP, is to forward the letter to the IP address owner so he or she can deal with the situation privately.

According to Bryan Scovill, network security specialist at UNH, other universities have decided not to forward the letters.

Although the university does forward letters, they will not divulge any personal identity information to the RIAA without a subpoena. “This is not a new issue,” said Senior Assistant Vice President Anne Lawing.

Lawing said that she has been receiving complaints about illegally shared material for over two years, but recently the volume of letters has gone up. Last fall and spring, the university received 295 and 264 DMCA complaints, respectively. This fall, 436 DMCA complaints have already come in.

In addition to the RIAA, other organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America also send DMCA letters to UNH users, but up until this point, only the RIAA has taken the next step and pursued litigation.

Along with the pre-litigation letters, accused students received a letter from Lawing and Tom Franke, chief information officer of Computing and Information Services, reminding recipients of the UNH IT regulations and that they can seek the legal advice of Student Senate Attorney Joanne Stella before making any decisions.

Stella advised a number of students last spring when 17 UNH students received pre-litigation letters, and she said that students from the new wave of letters have already been contacting her. She finds the RIAA’s tactics to be “ruthless” because they only allow 20 days for the accused to decide whether or not to settle.

“There could be a thousand reasons why someone doesn’t get the email right away, so now 20 days might be 15 or 10 days,” Stella said.

And where Stella is relatively easy to get a meeting with on 10 days notice, many other lawyers are not. Stella believes the RIAA is using the short time frame to force people to make a decision without being able to carefully weigh to options.

“Hasty decisions are often ones we regret,” said Stella.

To her knowledge, Stella believes that the majority of accused students have decided to settle rather than take on the RIAA. In the end it all comes down to money. According to Stella, hiring a lawyer would cost anywhere between $3,000 to upward of $30,000 in legal fees.

Scovill said he has seen no decline in file sharing since the first wave of pre-litigation letters went out last spring. Scovill also said that the cases at UNH were because a user was illegally serving files, meaning that he or she provided files for others to download, but Scovill warns that the trend could potentially change to target the downloaders as well.

According to Scovill, UNH cases involved students who used all types of peer-to-peer networks including DC++, Limewire, and Gnutella.