Students 'rip, mix, burn' at their own risk
Rachel Niehuus hasn't bought a CD in four years. The freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who just arrived at the ivy-covered campus on the Charles River last week, listens to new songs every day but can't remember the last time she paid for one.
"I download five or six times a day," the chemistry major from Bellville, Texas, says. "So not a massive amount, but probably enough to get caught." Ms. Niehuus isn't the least bit nervous about being sued for copyright infringement - perhaps at her own peril.
Some 56 million Americans use file-swapping software such as KaZaA and Grokster, according to the Boston-based research firm Yankee Group - so many that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has tried to discourage the practice by filing upwards of 2,000 subpoenas this summer in a bid to obtain the real names and contact information of file-sharers.
Its campaign came to a grinding halt in August, however, when Boston College and MIT refused to acknowledge, on a technicality, the handful of RIAA subpoenas they'd received - and a US district judge ruled in their favor. All 2,000 subpoenas were issued in Washington, D.C., and these would have to be refiled in Massachusetts, he said.
The RIAA targeted the schools because, although it is able to spot file-sharing activity through an ISP (Internet Service Provider, such as MIT), file sharers are identified only by their online aliases - anon1984, say.
To pursue its lawsuits, the RIAA needs the schools to release users' personal information so that it can match the aliases with real people.
The ruling prompted file sharers and privacy groups around the country to declare victory, while the volume of music downloading continues unabated. But the sense of security so many students feel may be a false one.
For one, no clear pattern has emerged as to which types of downloaders the RIAA is pursuing. This is just the "first round" of subpoenas, warns RIAA spokeswoman Amanda Collins. Anyone can be targeted.
Then, too, Boston College and MIT say they are unwilling to defend students' privacy if the RIAA files the subpoenas properly. "The onus is on the students not to violate copyright laws," says Jack Dunn, director of public affairs at Boston College.
"I've said repeatedly that we oppose the subpoenas, not in an effort to protect students from the consequences of copyright infringement," he adds, "but rather to protect student rights under federal law and to establish the proper procedures to be followed by the RIAA in the future."
In a written statement, James Bruce, vice president for information systems at MIT, echoed Boston College's stance. "Unless there is a change in the law, if the RIAA serves MIT with a valid subpoena ... MIT will provide the information that the RIAA lawfully requests."
Note to students: Tread carefully. If the RIAA gets it right next time, it could sue users, under federal copyright law, for anywhere between $4,000 and $100,000 a song, and your school may not be able to do a thing about it.
But if the RIAA hopes to scare students away from file sharing, it hasn't worked - at least not yet. Many see 2,000 subpoenas as a drop in the bucket, given the millions of file sharers roaming cyberland.
"Incarcerate 60 million Americans?" Grokster President Wayne Rosso asks. "They just don't get it. Every time they pull a move like this and we get mentioned in the media, more people start file sharing."
The volume of downloading on Grokster spiked by about 20 percent in the days after the RIAA's shock-and-awe subpoena tactic. As for the occasional 4 or 5 percent dips in traffic throughout the summer? Mr. Rosso scoffs. "Let's put it this way: It's all about control. They have lost it, and they're not getting it back."
Students express similar confidence. "It's not making me nervous," says MIT freshman Grant Oladipo, an electrical engineering and math major from Houston who, along with most of his friends, has been following the subpoena trail closely.
Some students believe that MIT will stand by them and protect their privacy. "Students will be more wary of [file sharing], and they may choose not to do it, but I don't think the administration will do anything," says MIT senior Ling Wong, a speaker for the undergrad association.
Students aren't the only ones on college campuses at risk of making the RIAA hit list. For all anyone knows, the RIAA subpoenas could nail professors or school administrators who have an appetite for free music.
"We don't know who these people are," Ms. Collins concedes, but she stresses that it is only a matter of time before the RIAA will. "Anyone on these systems who thinks they're anonymous is sorely mistaken. No one is above the law."
One RIAA official, who asks to go unnamed, admits that the association is targeting a specific user: the uploader. But the distinction between uploaders (who make music files available to others by storing them in a "shared" folder) and downloaders (who download to a personal folder) is a tricky one.
While downloading music from file-sharing sites, users retrieve the music files from other users' computers, and may be sharing their own files at the same time. Should these "uploaders" be punished more severely than those who take advantage of these vast networks but keep the songs to themselves?
A second note to students: The RIAA says yes.
Mr. Dunn at Boston College sees another pattern of targets. "What seems odd, given the scope of this, is when the RIAA rolled out these subpoenas they seemed to target high-profile schools in Boston and Chicago," he says.
"It was suggested that the rollout strategy would be Boston and Chicago, then New York and L.A., then Miami and Dallas, and so on, as a way of publicizing the issue. You can argue that the RIAA is fighting for its survival."
Chloe Tergiman, an MIT senior from Lyon, France, has recently decided to quit after nearly three years of downloading music from KaZaA. But she says it has nothing to do with the subpoenas.
Ms. Tergiman used to download music, at least in part, because of her disgust with major record labels - a disgust many say contributes to consumers' massive disregard of the industry's plea to pay. But, she says, that doesn't justify breaking the law.
"It's illegal, to start," the economics major says flatly. "And I'm at an institution where later on I'm hoping to publish papers and contribute to my field, and I'm going to have a little 'R' on my paper saying 'copyright material.' And hopefully that will be respected."