Tech officials grapple with campus file sharing

Almost a decade after illegal file sharing first took hold on college campuses, technology departments are being flooded with subpoenas aimed at students who continue to break federal laws, and it’s giving officials headaches.

Thousands of educators, administrators, and ed-tech vendors gathered to discuss the latest technology trends and products in higher education Oct. 28-31 at the EDUCAUSE conference in Orlando. At a discussion forum Oct. 29, technology department heads detailed their perpetual battles against campus-based illegal file sharing and the added burden of hundreds of "takedown" notices issued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) warning colleges that their students might end up in court.

Jean Boland, vice president of technology services at Morrisville State College in New York, said her school first received "takedown" notices in March 2003, and the college responded by shutting students out of the campus network if they were found in violation of copyright laws. The students were allowed back on the network once all infringing material was removed from their dormitory computers, Boland said.

But the takedown notices continued at a steady pace at Morrisville. Boland said students were shown a DVD issued by the RIAA explaining what kind of file sharing was considered illegal.

"We were trying to get proactive and get the message out to students," she said.

Still, students continued to share files illegally, and the RIAA warnings came in at a pace of about 1,000 a year, Boland said. 

"It didn’t matter how hard we tried," she said. "Nothing worked, and everything was out of our control."

"Pre-litigation" papers from RIAA explained to students that they could pay $3,000 and settle the cases out of court. If the student missed the deadline by even a day, that fine increased to $4,000. If the student chose to pay the fine over six months, the fine jumped again to $4,500.

Although Morrisville students should have heeded professors’ warnings, Boland said the fines were a "tremendous financial hardship for our students … and there were very serious side effects."

The mother of a Morrisville student told Boland that the student had to drop out of school to pay the fine levied by the RIAA.

Morrisville officials sought a technical solution to the downloading problem when the school bought Audible Magic, an electronic media-management system designed to stop peer-to-peer file sharing of music, movies, or computer software. Boland said the number of RIAA warnings dropped dramatically, but the college was hit with more than 200 takedown notices in March. Boland said those notices were for songs RIAA alleged were illegally downloaded before Audible Magic was installed on Morrisville’s network.  

At the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York system, Chief Information Officer Christine Haile was waging a similar battle. The school requires copyright education courses for incoming freshmen at orientation, and students living in dorm rooms must pass a file-sharing ethics quiz issued every school year.

"We treated illegal downloading as less of a technical issue … and more of a student-conduct issue," Haile said.

Educating students on the dangers of downloading copyrighted music and movies trimmed the number of students who violated the law, Haile said. In 2002, the University at Albany received 320 takedown notices. That number plummeted to 98 in 2007. But this year, school officials were shocked at a sharp rise in takedown notices. The college has been issued 168 notices since the start of the year.

Experts at the EDUCAUSE forum said sudden drastic increases in RIAA notices were a result of greater scrutiny placed on institutions. Still, technology chiefs are frustrated–and at times, dumbfounded–in a search for the anecdote to stop file sharing and a way to handle legal papers flowing into IT offices at a steady rate.

"Nothing is working," Haile said. "Downloading is a way of life. It’s in the culture."

Joseph Storch, an attorney at the State University of New York and an expert on file-sharing law, said grabbing songs online illegally is so ingrained in college campuses that students resort to the practice even when they don’t have to.

Earlier this year, the popular alternative rock band Radiohead released its latest album, "In Rainbows," for free on the internet. While hundreds of thousands of fans legally downloaded the music, millions shared the album illegally through file-sharing web sites, Storch said.



Note to readers:

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