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Hollywood chases down campus pirates

Trade groups for the movie and recording industries are putting new pressure on universities to crack down on file swapping by students using high-speed campus networks.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
Trade groups for the movie and recording industries are putting new pressure on universities to crack down on file-swapping by students using high-speed campus networks.

In a letter sent to more than 2,000 university presidents, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and other copyright owner trade groups told university officials that large numbers of students were using college resources to violate federal law.

"We are concerned that an increasing and significant number of students are using university networks to engage in online piracy of copyrighted creative works," the trade groups wrote in a letter sent to universities this week. "We believe there must be a substantial effort, both disciplined and continuous, to bring this piracy under control."

Universities, many of which now offer high-speed Internet connections to students in dormitory rooms and computer labs, have been quietly at the center of file-sharing debates since the emergence of Napster in late 1999. Several were sued by rock band Metallica and rapper Dr. Dre in 2000 in an effort to force the institutions to cut off students' access to Napster.

College administrators have also been grappling with the issue for purely technological reasons, however. Almost as soon as Napster's existence became widely known on campuses, network administrators found that students were using huge swathes of campus bandwidth to download songs--and later even more bandwidth-intensive files such as movies and games.

The letter, which the trade groups asked college presidents to send to university legal, financial and technological executives, stops short of threatening any kind of legal action. Indeed, the trade groups have rarely targeted Internet service providers with legal action, aside from a recent case in which the RIAA is suing Verizon Communications for information to identify an alleged file-trading subscriber.

However, the copyright groups strongly pressed the universities to implement consistent policies prohibiting copyright infringement, to monitor students' compliance with the policies, and to impose "effective remedies" against students or staff who violated the policies.

Sharing or stealing?
"Students must know that if they pirate copyrighted works they are subject to legal liability," the trade groups wrote. "It is no different from walking into the campus bookstore and in a clandestine manner walking out with a textbook without paying for it."

This time around, the movie and recording trade groups have weighty allies in their approach to the universities. In preparation for the new campaign, they recently met with a group of university presidents and education trade group officials to make their concerns known.

A coalition of six higher education trade groups is now sending its own letter to universities, asking them to take the copyright holders' concerns seriously, although it stops short of advocating specific policies.

"Given our responsibility as educators to help students make ethical and lawful choices, we encourage you to make efforts to educate students, faculty and staff about appropriate and inappropriate uses of (copyrighted) materials," the education trade groups' letter said. "While this is a vexing issue with no simple solutions, we hope you will join us in addressing the inappropriate use of campus facilities to disseminate (copyrighted) materials."

Groups signing the letter included the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Previously, many universities received cease-and-desist letters from the MPAA and smaller copyright holders warning them that students are violating copyrights. University responses have varied widely, with some implementing bandwidth management tools that block or restrict file swapping, and some taking a hands-off approach to students' online activities.