Supreme Court rejects illegal downloading argument

Recording industry officials have asked campus officials for help in stopping illegal downloading.

The U.S. Supreme Court has turned down an appeal from a Texas teenager who got in trouble for illegal downloading of music—a potential blow to students who might claim to be “innocent infringers” of copyright laws after downloading music without paying and bogging down campus networks.

Whitney Harper of Texas acknowledged she used file-sharing programs to download and share three dozen songs, claiming she didn’t know the program she used was taking songs from the internet illegally.

She also said the money she owes the recording industry should be reduced because, as a 16-year-old, she didn’t know that what she did amounted to copyright infringement.

The justices rejected Harper’s appeal Nov. 29 over a dissent from Justice Samuel Alito.

The issue in the case is whether people who illegally download and swap music online can try to show they did so innocently. Harper wanted the money owed for each song cut to $200 from $750.

“Under this interpretation, it is not necessary that the infringer actually see a material object with the copyright notice,” Alito wrote in his dissent. “It is enough that the infringer could have ascertained that the work was copyrighted.”

Alito continued: “In any event, the Court of Appeals rejected petitioner’s argument that her youth and lack of legal sophistication were relevant considerations—a conclusion that would not necessarily be correct if the determinative question were simply whether petitioner had ‘reason to believe’ that her actions were illegal. Although ‘reason to believe’ is an objective standard, it is by no means clear that certain objective characteristics of the infringer—such as age—may not be taken into account.”

Recording industry executives sued or threatened to sue about 40,000 people for illegal downloading last year, many of them high school and college students who used home or campus networks to rip songs and movies with the help of file-sharing programs.

Avenues for legal music downloads have become scarce in recent years.

Ruckus—a download service supported by advertisements and available free of charge to college students—went under in early 2009, continuing a string of early departures by low-cost music sites. Ruckus shut down after Universal Music Group and Sony did away with their Total Music venture, which owned Ruckus.

Napster, which switched to a legal downloading service after beginning as a controversial free file-sharing program in the late 1990s, and Cdigix were other affordable music sites that have closed down or stopped catering to colleges in recent months.

Low-cost digital music services have failed on college campuses in part because music choices were so limited that students were driven to illegal file-sharing programs where more songs were available—and free.

Some online music experts said Ruckus’s business model never had a chance for long-term success.

A limited number of songs were available on the site, and Ruckus never worked adequately on Macintosh computers or measured up to Apple iTunes, officials said.

Jean L. Boland, vice president for IT services at Morrisville State College in New York—a Ruckus customer—said students’ most frequent complaint about Ruckus was their inability to download songs to iPods. Students could  listen to Ruckus music only on their laptops.

As recently as last fall, university IT departments complained about a flood of warnings and lawsuits filed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) against students who shared songs and movies illegally over campus networks.

IT officials said passing the warnings along to students required major efforts, with some colleges forced to hire a full-time employee just to handle the legal paperwork.

Some schools refused to serve as a go-between for the RIAA when the organization was pursuing on-campus violators.

“Right now, they’re trying to dictate which services are going to be used,” said Jesse Brede, site director for Texas-based streaming media provider Blastro, which assembled Ruckus’s video library. “[Music industry giants] don’t have the cool factor, and I don’t think they ever will.”

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