LAST MONTH, THE RECORDING INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION of America (RIAA) announced it would stop targeting college students who, allegedly, have illegally downloaded music. It’s the latest chapter in a long-running story of an industry trying to come to grips with a technology it can’t control, and higher education is stuck in the middle.
The basic story line is that the internet has fundamentally changed the way music and other media are distributed, and the industry—except for some forward-thinking companies such as Apple and Amazon—hasn’t figured out a way to profit from it. So, rather than adjust to new technology, the RIAA tried to stop it altogether. It shut down the early peer-to-peer sites like Napster, but others quickly sprang up to take their place. Then the association decided to target the source of the most egregious file-sharing: students at colleges and universities.
In five years, the RIAA has issued some 35,000 lawsuits against alleged music pirates, many of whom were using their institutions’ high-speed networks.
The group filed suit after suit, and then — not much changed. At some schools, getting caught sharing files got you kicked off the network for a while—a week or maybe the entire semester—while others blocked all P2P applications. Yet the practice continues.
The RIAA turned up the heat at the beginning of 2008 with a flood of more than 800 “pre-settlement litigation” letters to colleges and universities across the country. The letters, which were supposed to be delivered by university administrators, informed students that they would be the targets of copyright infringement lawsuits—unless they stopped the practice and paid a settlement. Students were even encouraged to turn themselves in and pay fines online.
Although critics likened it to extortion, many schools complied and a few students took the bait and paid settlements. At other institutions, such as Duke University, administrators resisted forwarding the letters to students without having evidence that the charges were accurate.
Still, except for a few cases, the RIAA has been largely unable to prosecute the P2P suits. File sharing continues, now joined by movie and video game trading.
Last month the RIAA asked to dismiss its case against a Boston University student after a judge ruled that “making [copyrighted works] available for distribution,” without proof that they were actually distributed, doesn’t establish that copyright infringement occurred.
Then came the announcement that the RIAA would cease its lawsuit campaign.
Call me skeptical, but I don’t believe the RIAA has turned tail and run in defeat. In fact, I think now, more than before, universities need to step up their efforts to curb file sharing. Why? Because, despite appearing to back down, the RIAA has merely shifted its focus. Rather than pursuing individual users, and causing paperwork headaches for colleges and universities, the association has put the onus directly on the internet service providers. The ISPs will be charged with identifying and reporting perpetrators. If the practice persists, the ISP can dial back or even deny service. Whether the ISPs comply or not is another question—no one has suggested who will foot the bill for their efforts—but such a threat is potentially more damaging to institutions that rely so heavily on fast-flowing information.
Write to Tim Goral at email@example.com.