Download dealings: students skirt music piracy regulations

Like many college students, Jason Sterlacci has a lot of music stored on his computer. Also like many of his peers, he hasn’t paid for much of it.

Sitting in his dorm room in Ivory Tower, the senior uses a program called myTunes Redux to browse through nearly 50,000 songs from more than 100 people in his building. Finding a copy of Coldplay’s X&Y on “Sean Caffrey’s Music,” he drags and drops the song list to his own library, downloading the full album in about 30 seconds.

Essentially a hack of a legitimate iTunes service that allows users to see what others are listening to, myTunes Redux allows people using the same broadband circuit, such as the one found in a dorm, to copy songs directly from one another onto their own hard drives. Since it operates in a closed network, it’s twice as fast as traditional file-sharing programs – and harder to monitor. It’s just one of the new ways students are skirting a growing Recording Industry of America counterinsurgency on illegal music downloading.

“I stopped paying for music as soon as I got this,” said Sterlacci, who estimates he’s downloaded more than 300 songs in the past month. “I haven’t bought a CD all year, which is really unusual for me.”

“It’s really convenient to be able to download five albums in the course of a minute,” Sterlacci said. “I do consider it a form of stealing, but I’m too addicted to music to quit.”

Buoyed by a landmark Supreme Court decision in June that said peer-to-peer file-sharing services could be held responsible for their customers’ illegal actions, the recording industry has stepped up efforts to stop the widespread swapping of copyrighted music over the Internet.

College Culprits

At the heart of the battle is the college dorm scene, where every student has an Internet connection and iPods are as ubiquitous as backpacks. In a report delivered to Congress last month, a joint committee made up of representatives from higher education and the recording industry chided universities for having “yielded to complacency in their methods of addressing piracy on campus.”

Prepared in advance of a hearing on students’ file-sharing habits, the report cited myTunes and similar programs as some of the key obstacles in the fight against music piracy on college campuses. Members of Congress have since called on the General Accountability Office to study universities’ efforts to curtail illegal file-sharing over their networks.

“College students are some of the most avid music fans,” said RIAA spokesman Amanda Hunter in an e-mail. “Because music habits and customs they develop now are likely to stay with them for life, it’s especially important for us to educate them about the law.”

As some have already found out, the campaign amounts to more than just strong words. On Sept. 29, the RIAA announced its most recent wave of lawsuits targeting individual file-sharers on more than 17 college campuses, bringing the total number of students targeted to 940. That includes three GW students sued in 2004.

By logging onto programs such as Kazaa and BearShare, the RIAA finds users uploading copyrighted files and traces it to their dorm room, then sends the school a subpoena demanding they reveal the student’s identity.

“The law is quite clear here,” Hunter said. “U.S. copyright law prohibits the unauthorized duplication, performance or distribution of a creative work, and we expect students and universities to act in accordance with the law.”

Universities crack down

Schools are responding to the pressure. After the 2004 lawsuits, GW became one of the first to offer the legal file-sharing service Napster to students at no direct cost. Similar programs have since been established at nearly 70 colleges and universities across the country, tripling in just the past year.

Some schools are taking things a step further. The University of Florida has drawn attention for its homegrown tracking program Icarus, which monitors transmissions over the school’s Internet network and blocks downloads of copyrighted material. The school has seen a 50 percent decrease in offenses each of the two years the program has been in place, Hunter said.

Yet as recording officials, lawmakers and universities try to buckle down on illegal downloading, some question the effectiveness of their tactics. Despite an increase in user lawsuits, the music industry sold $2.4 billion less in recordings than in 1999, when peer-to-peer file-sharing first began to blossom. Students say they don’t see the risk, and activists call the suits a waste.

“If the goal is to stop downloading, it’s a failure on that front. If the goal is to get artists compensated, it’s a failure on that front as well,” said Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a law firm that specializes in intellectual property issues. “The only people getting paid at this point are the recording industry’s lawyers.”

Moreover, students have been slow to embrace free legal technologies. At GW, less than half of the student body uses the complimentary Napster service, causing the University to question renewing its contract with the company until it received a gift from an anonymous donor.

With schools urging students to go legal, the recording industry filing lawsuits and students seemingly indifferent to both, it’s unclear how or if a compromise will be reached.

Some are urging the RIAA to capitalize on the current open market. Lohmann suggests a system by which universities would pay a per-student fee directly to the recording industry, which would in turn allow users to download freely using any program without legal repercussions.

“You need to focus on getting artists compensated for file-sharing that’s going to happen anyway,” Lohmann said. “I think universities could be a very good baiter for some kind of blanket licensing experiment.”

Recording industry officials say they plan to stay their course. Hunter said she’s encouraged by an increase in schools offering legal programs and believes the programs’ use will grow. Though as long as illegal sharing continues, she said, so will user lawsuits.

“Just as we must hold accountable the businesses that encourage theft online, individuals who engage in illegal downloading must also know there are consequences to their actions,” Hunter said. “These lawsuits have helped arrest the tremendous growth of illegal peer-to-peer use, and we will continue to aggressively pursue them.”

While lawyers and industry executives squabble about compensation and property rights, in the dorm rooms themselves, the music plays on.

“I can see the problem, but I don’t think you’re going to able to stop it,” sophomore Thomas Brennan said. “The recording industry is already making so much money. It’s not going to hurt if you download one song.”

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