For many college students, back to school also means back to downloading music over the university's high-speed Internet connection. But not so fast: The music industry's crackdown on piracy on campus didn't stop with the end of the spring semester.
In August, the Recording Industry Association of America sent pre-litigation letters to 58 colleges—coast to coast, from Boston University to San Diego State. More than 2,400 letters already have been sent to students at schools targeted by the RIAA. The letters offer students the option of paying a settlement fee based on the number of tunes the student allegedly downloaded illegally or taking the risk of a potentially more expensive lawsuit.
The music association isolates Internet addresses that generate high downloading and file-sharing traffic, then asks the school to turn over the identity of those students, so it can get in touch with them. Some schools, like the University of Wisconsin, have declined to assist the RIAA, explaining that "to identify the IP users and forward the letters to them would put the university in an uncomfortable and inappropriate alliance with the RIAA," says Meg McCall, a spokesperson for the university. "While we agree that violation of copyright law is serious and should be addressed, the only way to be certain of infractions is to pursue action through the courts."
Students also are a bit flummoxed by the pre-litigation letters, though many appear to be opting for the quick settlement. When Cassandra Hunt, then a sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, received a notice from the school stating she was identified for violating copyright law, she asked the RIAA about the settlement fees. Explaining that it had identified 272 songs, which could potentially cost $750 per song should her case go to trial, it offered her a settlement fee. "Now, I know what you're thinking," wrote the physics major in an op-ed for The Tech last year. "[W]ith a collection of 272 whole songs, no wonder the RIAA felt compelled to squash my threat to the sanctity of music. However [...] the lady on the phone told me they'd be willing to settle for $3,750." And that fee, explains Hunt, was requested to be paid within 15 days (though the RIAA offers a six-month payment plan).
Colleges are taking their own measures to persuade students not to pirate music. Some schools are making deals with music download services such as Ruckus to provide their students with free, legal options. Penn State is one of the schools that have signed up for Ruckus, which also incorporates social-networking features. Users can "friend" others to see what playlists they are putting together and download those songs in seconds if their school has a Ruckus server installed. "We like to think of ourselves as a discovery tool," explains Charlie Moore, a senior vice president of Ruckus. But the songs downloaded can be listened to on the Ruckus player only, explains Moore. While some portable media devices can play the songs, Ruckus tunes can't be imported into iTunes or iPods.
Students at Penn State also have reported some problems getting the Ruckus service to work on Apple's Mac computers. Nevertheless, that's still likely less commotion than they face from a pre-litigation letter.