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Congress targets P2P piracy on campus

Key politicians chide universities for not doing enough to limit peer-to-peer piracy, calling unauthorized copying a federal crime that should be punished appropriately.

Key politicians chided universities on Wednesday for not doing enough to limit peer-to-peer piracy, calling unauthorized copying a federal crime that should be punished appropriately.

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Members of the House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees copyright law said at a hearing that peer-to-peer piracy was a crime under a 1997 federal law, but universities continued to treat file-swapping as a minor infraction of campus disciplinary codes.

"If on your campus you had an assault and battery or a murder, you'd go down to the district attorney's office and deal with it that way," said Rep. William Jenkins, R-Tenn.

"While I'm sympathetic to the young people, they're breaking the law," warned Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. "Until the university or this committee is going to do something about it, we're wasting everyone's time."

The hearing illustrated the importance that the new chairman of the panel, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, places on addressing Internet piracy. Wednesday's gathering, which included testimony from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and two university administrators, was the first subcommittee meeting on courts, the Internet and intellectual property since last year and marked Smith's inaugural hearing as chairman.

Under a 1997 law called the No Electronic Theft Act (NET Act), it is a federal crime to willfully share copies of copyrighted products such as software, movies or music with anyone if the value of the work exceeds $1,000 or if the person hopes to receive files in return. Violations are punishable by one year in prison, or if the value tops $2,500, "not more than five years" in prison.

So far the Justice Department has not tried to use the NET Act to imprison peer-to-peer pirates. Last August, however, 19 members of Congress wrote to Attorney General John Ashcroft asking him "to prosecute individuals who intentionally allow mass-copying from their computer over peer-to-peer networks."

On Wednesday, members of the committee expressed frustration that no criminal prosecutions had taken place yet and universities have not been sufficiently aggressive. "We are reaching the end of our ropes. There is a consensus that has emerged," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y. "Virtual unanimity should be a message to those testifying today that we are reaching a point at a bipartisan level that we want to stop this illegal activity."

Peer-to-peer pressure
Copyright holders, led by the music and movie industry but with growing support from software makers, point to universities as a major source of copyrighted material because of the high-speed connections that students enjoy and because of a culture that views piracy as morally acceptable. This week, Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America spoke to two law schools to stress the moral perils of illicit copying.

Pennsylvania State University President Graham Spanier, who is the co-chairman of a working group that includes the entertainment industry, acknowledged piracy was rampant but said that peer-to-peer networks could be used for fair-use purposes. "We're not sure a one-solution-fits-all outcome is workable," Spanier said. "Penn State would be willing to go even further if we knew it worked and could be done well and could be scaled up."

Spanier said that Penn State restricts students' computer use by bandwidth consumed, not by the type of material downloaded or uploaded, and provides two warnings before their Internet access is disabled. "Audio and video files are large, and we monitor the amount, but not the content, of traffic to and from individual machines," he said. "Residence hall users are limited to 1.5 gigabytes of inbound or outbound traffic per week."

Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., suggested that universities block students from all use of peer-to-peer networks. "Universities are using blocking technologies to stop illegal activities, spam, pornography...They're using and thereby blocking illegal transmissions" already, said Berman, who introduced a last year authorizing copyright holders to disrupt or disable peer-to-peer networks.

The University of Wyoming, for instance, has installed software that monitors its network and notes what files are being swapped by students, faculty and staff.

Hilary Rosen, chief executive of the RIAA, said in response to a question that "the law is clear in this area that making files available to distribute on peer-to-peer networks is illegal...Criminal statutes are clear and civil statutes are clear." As previously reported by CNET, the RIAA has been in talks with the Department of Justice about initiating the first prosecutions of peer-to-peer users.

Rosen said the RIAA sends out about 2,500 notices a month to universities warning them of infringing activities on their networks.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the senior Democrat on the full Judiciary Committee, warned that universities should take aggressive measures to police their own networks lest Congress do it for them in a much more invasive way. "There are people (on this committee) willing to take action, and it'll probably go over the line in terms of privacy concerns," he said.

Also on Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that it had seized control of, a Web site devoted to selling "mod" chips that let pirated games be played on consoles like the Microsoft Xbox and Sony Playstation 2. The site violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the government said.