The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)for running services that searched computers connected to their college networks for MP3 song files. The students also shared copyrighted music from own machines. The lawsuits marked the first time that the RIAA directly sued students, as opposed to companies, associated with peer-to-peer piracy.
The settlements will see each student making payments to the RIAA totaling between $12,000 and $17,000, split into annual installments between 2003 and 2006. The lawsuits as filed could have entailed damages (in theory) of up to $100 million.
"The record companies indicated right from the beginning that they were amenable to settling this case," said Howard Ende, a Drinker Biddle & Reath attorney who represented defendant Princeton sophomore Daniel Peng. "In my view, this was not about Daniel Peng, per se, but was a utilization of the legal system to make a point--essentially to intimidate Internet users."
The lawsuits--on top of a series of communications that the RIAA and other copyright holders have had with universities over the past year--have led to a crackdown on campus file swapping and the kind of network search tools created by Peng and the other students.
College officials recently reprimanded a large group of students at Pennsylvania State University for using or operating similar services. This week, the New Jersey Institute of Technology banned the use of file-sharing software on its campus, citing the danger of lawsuits, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Also last month, Naval Academy officials said they hadwho were allegedly caught using campus resources for file sharing.
Despite the settlements, the students did not admit any guilt.
"I don't believe that I did anything wrong," 18-year-old Peng said in a statement. "I am glad that the case has been settled amicably, and I hope that, for the sake of artists, the larger issues can soon be resolved."
In their suits against Peng and the three other students, the RIAA called the services they had created "mini-Napsters." Ende said that Peng, as well as his attorneys, believed that the service he had run was more like Google than Napster, since it had simply searched computers that were hooked up to the campus network, whether or not they contained his software.
As part of their settlements, the students agreed not to knowingly infringe the record label's copyrights while using the Internet. They will also shut down their network search services. Peng's attorneys said he will instead provide links to a record industry Web site.
"We believe it's in everyone's best interest to come to a quick resolution, and that these four defendants now clearly understand the seriousness with which we view this type of illegal behavior," said RIAA Senior Vice President Matt Oppenheim in a statement. "We have also sent a clear signal to others that this kind of activity is illegal."
The RIAA said that any future similar enforcement actions could lead to "stiffer settlement obligations."