The RIAA scores huge wins … and then alters its strategy to combat illegal file sharing on campus

The music industry scored a huge win in its efforts to clamp down on illegal file sharing on college campuses when Congress passed legislation designed to tackle the problem.

Over the objections of campus administrators, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act included a measure forcing colleges and universities to implement network administration technologies that deter illegal peer-to-peer file sharing. These technologies can include bandwidth shaping, traffic monitoring that identifies the largest bandwidth users, or products designed to reduce or block illegal file sharing, according to the legislation. The law allows each institution to determine its own policy and use the corresponding technology.

In July, the American Council on Education (ACE) sent a letter to members of Congress stating that while the law has a number of desirable provisions, it also has a number of drawbacks.

"Most notably, it will create an extraordinary number of new federal reporting and regulatory requirements dealing with … peer-to-peer file sharing. Although some of these have been made less onerous as the legislative process has proceeded, the total volume of new federal requirements remains considerable," ACE President Molly Corbett Broad wrote. "Complying with these requirements will be time-consuming and inevitably will increase administrative and personnel costs on campuses."

Indeed, an analysis done by the Campus Computing Project estimated that some colleges and universities might have to spend up to half a million dollars to comply with new federal rules.

"The costs [will] vary dramatically depending on the college," said Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project. To meet the law’s requirements, higher-education institutions will have to purchase hardware or software to stem file sharing, if they don’t already use such technologies. There are also other costs related to time spent by school administrators, legal counsel, IT personnel, and student affairs personnel, Green said.

The nonprofit higher-education technology organization Educause objected to the legislation, because it forces colleges to "take technological steps to block allegedly infringing material … when there is no consensus on what technology can adequately and accurately accomplish that goal."

Even before Congress passed the file-sharing measure, the RIAA had stepped up its efforts to combat the problem. The group had lobbied state legislatures to pass similar laws forcing state colleges and universities to take steps to police their networks, and Tennessee was one of the first states to do so.

While the RIAA continues to push for technological help in deterring illegal file sharing, the group recently announced a change in strategy: It will only file lawsuits against the most egregious offenders–those who have been warned repeatedly to stop.

That’s good news for campus officials, who increasingly resented serving as go-betweens in the music industry’s efforts to "shake down" file sharers for settlements. In fact, several schools had begun fighting the RIAA on this point, refusing to pass along "pre-litigation" settlement letters to suspected violators.

In announcing the shift, the RIAA acknowledged that it was paying more in legal fees than it was taking in from the settlements. But the group stands by its prior efforts, which it says have raised awareness and helped deter some piracy.

The move comes as another potential strategy for dealing with the problem is emerging: a proposed music "tax" that students would pay in exchange for the right to swap songs online. Warner Music Group, an industry giant, has helped pitch the student fee proposal to well-known universities. And while some campus officials say they want to hear more about the plan, others–including those at the University of Colorado-Boulder–are wary.

The RIAA also said it would proceed with any file-sharing lawsuits that have yet to be resolved–including the case of a Boston University graduate student who is being defended by Harvard law professor Charles Nesson in a high-profile case that could determine the constitutionality of the group’s legal assaults.

Related links:

RIAA steps up anti-piracy efforts, targets state lawmakers

Congress: Schools must clamp down on file sharing

Colleges push back against RIAA’s methods

Tech officials grapple with campus file sharing

Study looks at cost to police campus networks

Harvard law professor fires back at RIAA

Judge postpones hearing in key RIAA lawsuit

Music ‘tax’ proposed as file-sharing solution

RIAA drops effort to sue song swappers