The worst thing about college used to be the occasional displaced vertebrae from keg-stand mishaps. But thanks to the good old Recording Industry Association of America, the ante has been upped.
A few weeks ago, the RIAA lost a pivotal case in the battle against downloading, when an L.A. judge ruled that two companies who make file-sharing software -- Grokster and StreamCast -- are not liable for the unlawful transfer of files by those who use the software. Thus, with the instruments that enable the free trade of music over the internet now federally protected, the RIAA is forced to go after a new villain: you, the evil online file sharer.
The association's focus swiftly shifted to America's college campuses, where students frequently use university networks for swapping music. During the first week of April, the RIAA filed suit against four college students for downloading copyrighted music at separate campuses across the country. The association sought $150,000 for each pirated song -- a sum totaling billions of dollars in damages.
On the surface, the suit looked like a stern warning to downloaders everywhere: Penalties for copyright infringement are no longer the problem of software companies. The music industry now has its scopes trained on home computers everywhere.
But the RIAA's crusade may have taken a hit when all four of the students -- two of them at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and one each at Princeton University and Michigan Technological University -- quickly settled out of court, each of them forking over between $12,000 and $17,000 in fines. It was a concession few average file sharers would -- or could -- make, signaling that the File-Swapping Four were more than typical music downloaders. Each of them, it turned out, was running a network containing more than 100,000 copyrighted music files. In essence, they were operating their own internet-based music companies.
In a similar instance, the RIAA recently won a suit against the internet provider Verizon, which was forced to release the name of a subscriber who downloaded music. That individual had swiped over 600 tunes -- more than most file sharers will grab in a lifetime.
For now, it appears that small-scale users needn't fear the RIAA's self-righteous sword.
"I don't think that it will slow downloading or cause anyone to download any less," says Jacacia, a senior at a local college, who downloads a couple of songs a week. She declined to give her last name, nor did she want her school identified. "It'll only bring punishment to those that are targeted," she says.
Nevertheless, the RIAA insists its crackdown has led universities to police their own networks more strictly.
"It's already having a dramatic impact," says the RIAA's Jonathan Lamy. "We know of at least 18 of these Napster-like networks that were operated on college campuses that have been pulled down since the lawsuits were filed. Clearly, the message is getting out there that this is an illegal activity and it has consequences." (Last week, police raided four campus dorms at Ohio State University, seizing five computers that authorities contend offered copyrighted works to some 3,000 users.)
The RIAA's message is echoed by Richard Valenti, executive director of information services at John Carroll University. "We've definitely communicated with the students and said, 'This is illegal, you can get in trouble for this. We will get you in trouble for this,'" he says. "Our staff has warned the students."
But cracking down on copyright infringement doesn't top the to-do list at most universities, where network efficiency -- not ethical concerns -- is at stake. According to a recent study at the University of Tennessee, students who swap music hogged up to 70 percent of the university's bandwidth, severely clogging the system.
John Carroll has experienced the same problem, Valenti says. "Last fall, the 'net was really impeded. Everyone knew usage was heavy, but a lot of folks didn't realize the extent to which illegal activities were making it heavy.
"We will discipline folks if it turns out they're doing that," he says, "because it's a tremendous drain on bandwidth."