No Free Lunch

It certainly seemed like a great idea in the beginning. Peer-to-peer file sharing programs like LimeWire, BitTorrent, WinMX ,i2hub, and the granddaddy of them all, Napster, allowed computer users to swap copyrighted material for free. And swap they did. According to the market research firm NPD, college students alone accounted for more than 1.3 billion illegal music downloads in 2006. Illegal? Yes. It turns out this “swapping” is actually stealing, and that’s a message that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) wants schools and students to understand.

Global music piracy causes $12.5B in U.S. economic losses every year and approximately 71,060 U.S. job losses, says a 2007 study by the Institute for Policy Innovation. Don’t blame ignorance for all of this rule breaking. According to internal surveys, the RIAA estimates that awareness of the law has skyrocketed. In 2003, 37 percent of people polled said that making copyrighted material available for free was illegal. Today that number stands at 73 percent.

So if people know that they are committing a crime, why do otherwise law-abiding citizens continue? It could be the intimacy of the setting or presumed anonymity of the Internet or, in the words of Alan Jacobs, associate director of student housing, Whitworth University in Spokane, WA, “Students feel like they are a small needle in a huge haystack and will never be found.”

But with that much revenue being lost and with college students reporting to the NPD that more than two-thirds of their music collections were acquired illegally, that haystack transforms into a goldmine worth diving into. According to an article written by Mitch Bainwol, chairman and CEO, and Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, “This is about a generation of music fans. College students used to be the music industry’s best customers. Now, finding a record store still in business anywhere near a campus is a difficult assignment at best. It’s not just the loss of current sales that concerns us, but the habits formed in college that will stay with these students for a lifetime. This is a teachable moment — an opportunity to educate these particular students about the importance of music in their lives and the importance of respecting and valuing music as intellectual property.”

Finding an Answer
In answer to the problem, the RIAA issued a best practices guide for combating illegal file sharing on university networks. Details of this four-prong approach suggest first adapting a strong anti-theft policy and clearly informing students about it. Secondly, they suggest consistent enforcement of the policy with proper punishments in place for offenders. Technologies that prevent misuse of campus networks can offer a proactive approach to schools and represent the third idea. Finally, the RIAA suggests facilitating access to convenient, inexpensive legal alternatives for music, movie, and ringtone downloads.

These, of course, are all suggestions. Different institutions report success with a variety of different policies to deal with the problem. Some schools block file-sharing programs outright. While this is certainly effective, it cuts into valuable learning tools that students and professors could be using.

Others do nothing and let the RIAA go after students on their own. In February of 2007, on behalf of the major record companies, the RIAA sent out 400 pre-litigation settlement letters to 13 different universities. Each letter informs the school of a forthcoming copyright infringement lawsuit against one of its students or personnel. Schools are requested to find the appropriate network user and forward the letter. The student can then settle the claim at a discounted rate and avoid a lawsuit.

Whitworth has decided to act as a middleman between the RIAA and the student, at least for the first offense. Once a user is tagged for copyright infringement, network manager Walt Seidel goes into action. “I find the offending student and immediately turn off his or her account,” he said. “Then I direct them to the people over at student life.”

That’s when Alan Jacobs, associate director of student housing, takes over. “I make the students research and write a four- to five-page paper about copyright law,” he said. “They have to visit various Websites and give their views on the law. I ask that they write it as if speaking to their fellow students. Since this policy has been in place, we haven’t had a repeat offender.”

Getting the Message Out

Whitworth and other schools offer initial education about the dangers of illegal file sharing in a variety of ways. Students at the school are required to read a computer usage agreement found in the handbook, but Jacobs admits that it is, “wordy and doesn’t sink in. The school paper will run an article or two about the topic and that communicates the issue more effectively.” Ohio State University educates its 52,000 students about copyright law during orientation. “We’ve had about 60 notices since the RIAA has started handing them out,” reported Jim Lynch, director of media relations. “We also use e-mail and other mailers to communicate with the users.”

Missouri University of Science & Technology found an innovative way to stop the problem before it starts. Students who want to use that school’s peer-to-peer file-sharing software must first pass a six-question online quiz. The exercise tests student’s knowledge of digital copyright law, and the questions are randomized so students never take the same quiz twice. Pass the test and students get six hours of online time. The program’s success is quantifiable. “Last year we got over 200 copyright infringement notices from the RIAA,” reported Karl Lutzen, principal system security analyst. “Since implementing this program we’ve had eight.”

Even with his success, Lutzen refuses to rest. “There will never be a permanent solution to this issue,” he said. “People will always try to come up with a way around the system. It’s an arms race.”