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Hollywood's new lesson for campus file swappers

Entertainment companies are pushing new antipiracy technology that could make it easier to remove suspected pirates from campus networks.

Hollywood is poised to up the ante in its war against file swappers, with new technology that could make it easier to remove suspected pirates from campus networks, CNET has learned.

Movie studios, record labels and technology companies have been testing the system for months, according to sources familiar with the project.

Known as the Automated Copyright Notice System (ACNS), the technology promises to make copyright enforcement easier on peer-to-peer networks, saving schools and Internet service providers (ISPs) time and money. ACNS allows them to automatically restrict or cut off Internet access for alleged infringers on notice from a record label or movie studio. For example, universities using ACNS could instantly send notices of copyright infringement to students by e-mail and restrict their network access until they have removed the file.

Though not specifically ACNS, a similar system is set to go live Monday at the University of California at Los Angeles, one of the nation's largest universities with 37,500 students.


What's new:
New technology could make it easier to remove suspected pirates from university networks.

Bottom line:
The technology promises to ease copyright enforcement on peer-to-peer networks, saving schools and Internet service providers time and money.

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"ACNS is an open-source, royalty-free system that universities, ISPs, or anyone that handles large volumes of copyright notices can implement on their network to increase the efficiency and reduce the costs of responding to the notices," according to a technical summary.

College campuses are ground zero for illegal file swapping via peer-to-peer networks because students often have access to high-speed Internet or local area network (LAN) connections through their school's network. Hollywood and the music industry say that such violations have cost them billions of dollars and thus have targeted universities to help to curb file swapping. ACNS, one such measure, is designed to takes some of the burden off universities and ISPs as they field thousands of content takedown notices from copyright holders.

Universities have an incentive to cooperate with the technological solutions because they can be held liable in lawsuits charging their students with digital theft.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is still working on gathering support among universities, which are key to helping curb piracy, said Matthew Grossman, director of digital strategy at the group. "If it enables them to properly implement their copyright policies, we're all for it," Grossman said.

ACNS was jointly designed by Vivendi Universal Entertainment and Universal Music Group in response to an open call for technical solutions to peer-to-peer piracy. The two groups are still talking to universities, ISPs and technology companies about offering it as a pilot program. They have also applied for a patent on the piracy notice and prevention tool.

ACNS is the latest effort from record labels and Hollywood studios to crack down on piracy over peer-to-peer networks. The industries' tactics have grown increasingly aggressive, drawing charges from some critics that copyright holders have trampled the rights of accused infringers.

Last year, for example, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began suing hundreds of individual file swappers and using fast-track subpoenas allowed under digital copyright law and aimed at making it cheaper for intellectual property holders to sue dozens of people at once. A judge later invalidated most of those subpoenas, forcing the industry to pursue more costly and time-consuming filings aimed at specific individuals.

Privacy vs. policy
ACNS is aimed at slashing the costs of copyright enforcement on peer-to-peer networks, although its backers say the system does protect end-user rights.

According to its technical summary, ACNS does not invade privacy. Rather, it assists universities or ISPs in enforcing their own policies on network abuse and copyright infringement. ACNS can also be used to protect networks from viruses, Trojan horses and other nefarious activity, the summary asserts.

"We're helping the ISP or university with policy enforcement. We're not dictating the policy, but we're saying, 'Here's a tool to help with automating the process.' We're the friends of the ISP," said Mark Ishikawa, chief executive officer of BayTSP, a Los Gatos, Calif.-based digital protection company that is using the system on behalf of copyright holders.

MediaSentry, another copyright searching company, and packet shaping vendor Ellacoya have started testing ACNS. According to the technical specification for ACNS, the group is working with a university that has installed the system using its Cisco routers. Universal Studios, Paramount, MPAA and RIAA have all begun using Extensible Markup Language (XML) tags in their copyright notices.

Although universities are interested in tools that can help them reduce campus piracy, some are reluctant to use ACNS because of concerns that it might not give students a chance to contest the charges against them.

UCLA's new piracy prevention program, for example, is based on principles used in ACNS but ensures that students will always get a fair shake, according to the school's director of IT policy, Ken Wada. The policy affects 7,500 students who live on campus.

"It would be easy to accept a claim and shut the computer off without understanding the circumstances," Wada said. "We seek to balance our responsibilities to respect copyrights and our responsibilities for due process and student privacy."

Under section 512 of the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a representative of a copyright holder can send a "takedown" notice to a university or ISP requesting that copyrighted material be removed. Universities may be obliged to comply with such requests from copyright holders.

ISPs have argued that the DMCA takedown requirements do not apply to peer-to-peer networks because the ISPs are not in a position to police the private hard drives of their customers. The statute applies only to material hosted on the providers' own servers, the ISPs have argued.

UCLA sent letters to resident students and staff last week, describing its new policy for file sharing and intellectual property, and warned of the personal risks of file sharing by highlighting the RIAA's latest round of lawsuits against students in March. The university will launch the new piracy prevention program on Monday as a test throughout the spring quarter, Wada said.

Since July, UCLA has received 300 takedown notices from copyright holders, a school representative said.

UCLA's policy will give students two strikes. A first-time offender will lose his or her Internet access until the infringing files are removed. On a second offense, the process is the same, but the student faces disciplinary action from a dean.

"When we receive a claim of copyright infringement and when we've identified the computer, it's put into the form of restricted network access. That computer can only get to resources on the UC campus; file sharing has been stopped," Wada said. "You'll see some commonality with ACNS."

ACNS isn't the first automated network piracy-prevention tool.

Last year, the University of Florida created a similar open-source program called Icarus (Integrated Computer Application for Recognizing User Services). When Icarus detects illegal file trading on the school network, it automatically sends an e-mail and a pop-up notice warning the student that he or she is about to be disconnected.

Utilizing digital tags
ACNS relies on reports of illegal file swapping from movie studios and record labels, which notify schools of infringement. It enhances current reporting methods by using software tags to automate some of the steps.

Several studios and record labels, including Universal Music Group, have begun to standardize the tags at the bottom of their takedown notices into XML, code that allows data to be used seamlessly in various contexts.

The digital tags contain the name of the copyrighted material that's been comprised, the copyright holder's name, date and time stamp, and the Internet Protocol address of the infringer. Receipt of this tag triggers the internal notification process at a university or ISP using the system.

Typically, it can take days or weeks for a university to act on a copyright violation request. When a request reaches the IT administrators, they must investigate who used the IP address in violation of its file-sharing copyright policies. Then they send a note to the residential housing adviser where the student lives. The adviser then sends a note to the dean's office about the student's activity. And the dean will act on the school's policy for such behavior, notifying the student and potentially disconnecting Internet access to the student's machine.

ACNS would trigger such e-mail notifications and could automatically choke off the student's access to a peer-to-peer network, while leaving his Internet or e-mail connection untouched. Depending on the school's policy, it could put the student into a 30-minute penalty box, without access, on the first offense. The second offense could warrant a week without peer-to-peer privileges, and so forth.

A report is generated on the infringing act, including who was notified and how the situation was handled, and a log is created at the monitoring station.

Fred von Lohmann, an attorney with the Internet consumer rights group known as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said ACNS is an interesting concept but doubted that it will solve the problem of campus piracy. He predicted that students ultimately create workarounds, for example, using wireless devices to avoid detection. He said that the more sensible solution is for the copyright holders to collectively license their content to college campuses.

That approach has proven controversial as well, however. Penn State signed a deal last fall with Napster to offer a legitimate online service for its students, but many people balked because it translates into added fees to their tuition.

"Whether it's an opening gambit for the recording industry to try to tell universities how to design their computer systems, we'll have to wait and see," von Lohmann said. "The trouble I have with this, there will be countermeasures, and who is going to absorb costs to constantly modify this system to make it work? Do universities really want to be drawn into the arms race?"