Washington, D.C.-area universities look for legal file-sharing options

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – As new methods of file sharing push music and movie piracy to new heights on college campuses, universities around Washington, D.C., and the nation are weighing their students’ freedom against the entertainment industry’s demand: Shut down or pay up.

Since file sharing began with the launch of the music sharing program Napster in 1999, the music industry has lost up to $4.2 billion each year to piracy, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA, a music trade group.

An RIAA lawsuit effectively shut Napster down in 2001, but over a dozen new programs have sprung up in its place.

And with BitTorrent, another new file-sharing technology, students with high-speed Internet connections and knowledge of the right Web sites have quick and free access to entire films and, in many cases, collections of every song recorded by a particular artist.

A 2004 survey of network activity conducted by Cachelogic, a network monitoring firm, found that BitTorrent accounted for 53 percent of peer-to-peer traffic and 35 percent of overall Internet traffic.

“Theft is theft,” RIAA chair Mitch Bainwol said in a press release. “The [file traders] of the world are not innovators. Far from it. They are parasites.”

Last week, the RIAA filed new suits against 405 students at 18 colleges across the country for downloading copyrighted music. But the thousands of lawsuits the organization has filed since 2003 have done little to discourage the illegal sharing of copyrighted material.

The popularity of file sharing on college campuses has forced universities into the debate over the future of file sharing. In an attempt to curb illegal downloading, some schools have partnered with legal file-sharing services. Napster’s new, legal service landed at George Washington University last fall for one year on the tab of an anonymous donor. Other schools have paid upwards of $100,000 for the service.

The University of Maryland announced last month that it would test-run a similar program on its campus administered by another electronic media company, Cdigix.

Both services offer students the ability to download as many songs as they want via “tethered downloads,” which cannot be shared between students. Students can purchase individual songs or entire albums to copy to a CD or portable MP3 player.

But the ease and unlimited selection of illegal downloads has made the legal services’ effort to catch on with students an uphill battle.

“I’ve thought about using [the school’s Napster service], but it’s easier just to download music or get it from my friends,” sophomore Chester Vincent said. “That’s just the truth.”

“When I use Kazaa, I get it for free — and I get to keep it,” junior Brittany Baron told the GW Hatchet, referring to a free file-sharing program often used to distribute copyrighted material. Still, the entertainment industry said it has no problem with students making illegal downloads as long as their schools are offering a legal alternative.

“The RIAA was very candid about saying they aren’t looking for students from schools with Napster agreements,” Linda Schutjer, a university lawyer, told the GW Hatchet.

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