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Universities strike back in battle over illegal downloads

With 1.3 billion music files pirated by college students last year, schools are turning to technology to curb the practice. Congress watches with interest.

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In addition to paying hefty tuition and footing the bill for costly textbooks, university students may also need to pay prominent record labels a chunk of change if they choose to illegally download music on the Internet.

The 2006-07 academic year was an aggressive one for the Recording Industry Association of America's crackdown on illegal downloads by college students. RIAA sent three times more copyright violation notices to universities than it did the previous academic year. Hundreds of prelitigation letters offered to settle for about $3,000.

Statistics show that college students illegally obtained two-thirds of their music and accounted for 1.3 billion illegal downloads in 2006 alone – in what the RIAA estimates as millions of dollars in losses directly attributed to college students. Now, Congress is taking action and pressuring universities to tighten network security and ethical standards – even comparing digital piracy to plagiarizing term papers in an effort to change the mind-set of students and administrators. Result: Universities are getting new software, and students are getting the message.

"If you're on a college campus, that's where they're looking," says Kent State University student Dave Bachman, who in April settled for $3,000 with RIAA.

Students now have more options than ever for obtaining music legally with the introduction of free or inexpensive programs that cater to the college crowd. Many universities have seen a reduction in copyright violation notices after promoting such legal programs. One such program, the Ruckus Network, reworked its format in January to provide free, legal music downloads to all US college students with a valid ".edu" e-mail address. Though it won't release hard figures, Ruckus says that since it opened the floodgates to all college students, it has experienced a 60 percent increase in users and now serves "hundreds of thousands."

The accelerating adoption of digital music has contributed to a 13 percent drop in physical music sales in 2006 (and down more than 30 percent from its 1999 peak) and a nearly 75 percent increase in digital sales that same year, according to RIAA year-end charts.

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