Downloading Policy May Lead to Student Fines
An announcement on August 16 marked the beginning of the seventh wave of lawsuits meant to deter individual music downloaders. The Recording Industry Association of America stated that it had sent letters to 58 colleges and universities targeting 503 specific students. The schools involved range from Columbia University to Wellesley College, and at least one student from Oberlin received a notice.
The Oberlin student who runs the file-sharing hub for the campus, and who wishes to go by the alias Small Machine for legal reasons, explained how the RIAA locates a specific user:
“When you authenticate with CIT [Oberlin’s Center for Information Technology], you are pairing your user ID with your MAC address, so CIT knows who is tied to each IP address. The end result is that if CIT is told that an IP address is sharing content, they usually can figure out which student that is, and they e-mail the user a copyright violation notice and block the MAC address.”
After receiving notice from the RIAA, the defendants have an opportunity to pay roughly $3000 and promise never to share files illegally again. The other option is to have the case go to court; if the defendant loses, there is a minimum penalty of $750 per song, which can add up to massive sums.
Several examples have emerged of clearly innocent people being targeted, such as an elderly woman who does not even own a computer. Small Machine remembers last school year: “I was pegged three times, once incorrectly.”
Opponents argue that this approach amounts to little more than extortion, especially as the RIAA has often attempted to specifically target certain groups, such as college students, who are rarely in the financial position to be able to hire a lawyer for a prolonged defense in court.
Aside from the practical implications for students and others who engage in file sharing, certain analysts see these current events as indicative of trends in the music industry. By representing the major record labels, and thus nearly 90 percent of legal music released today, the RIAA has a crucial stake in the music business.
New technology has made it as simple as pointing and clicking to download music and videos for free, and the dominant position of the RIAA is being undermined by the current trend toward more decentralized information distribution.
Small Machine commented, “As long as the public has a say in law and the advances of technology, the public will work for what is fastest, easiest and cheapest.... The easier information distribution gets, the more obsolete the idea of copyright will become.”
Some, such as Small Machine, feel that the actions of the RIAA do not show a forward-looking business plan, but rather an attempt to gain as much money as possible in legally dubious efforts while waiting for the current business model to collapse.
Yet, until a court halts or makes a determination on the current actions of the RIAA, lawsuits against students or anyone who utilizes peer-to-peer file sharing technology will continue, and Oberlin students are not immune to this risk.