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:: By Seth Mayer

:: Photo by Dan Dry

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Chicago Journal ::

Digital pirates of the Midway

While manning the counter at Ex Libris, the Regenstein’s basement-level coffee shop, Erin, ’08, checked her e-mail and found a surprising message. She was kicked off the University’s computer network until she met with a dean of students. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), she discovered, had registered a complaint against her for illegal downloading. Barred from the sites she needed to do course work, Erin, then a first-year, was puzzled. She couldn’t remember illegally downloading anything.


Three years ago Erin’s boyfriend illegally downloaded a Ludacris song on her computer, and she was kicked off Chicago’s network.

Over the past decade, the RIAA, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and other trade associations have led a campaign against sharing copyrighted works over the Internet, focusing on college campuses. The MPAA ranked Chicago No. 16 on its worst-offenders list for movie piracy, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s March 30 technology blog. Disputing the MPAA’s statistics, which claimed Chicago had 575 copyright-infringement notices in the 2006–07 academic year, University Vice President and Chief Information Officer Greg Jackson asserted in June 5 congressional testimony that the U of C actually received only 57 infringement notices for digital bootlegging, including those from the MPAA, RIAA, and other groups. Much of the discrepancy, he explained in an interview, arose from different counting methods. The MPAA listed the number of violations—how many movies someone pirated, for example—while the University received only one notice for each violator. The number of complaints Chicago gets, he says, is “typical for institutions our size” that are “fairly aggressive handlers and if they’re not a publicity target.”

After universities process these notices, students like Erin find themselves summoned to deans’ offices or hit with fines that can run into the thousands. At first Erin worried that someone had logged onto her account to get the song. But after talking to her then-boyfriend, who had been visiting, Erin realized that he had downloaded it while she was in class, using the iBook in her Maclean dorm room. She met with Belinda Cortez Vazquez, assistant dean for student affairs, who told Erin that the song that got her exiled from the network was Ludacris’s “What’s Your Fantasy,” which her boyfriend moved directly to his iPod. Because he had connected to Chicago’s wireless network through Erin’s address, University policy required her to sign a letter swearing off illegal file sharing, under threat of a $1,000 fine from the University, a permanent ban from the network, and a lawsuit from the RIAA. After signing, she was allowed back on the network.

Now a fourth-year, the anthropology major says, “I’m just worried that ten years down the line I’m going to get this letter from the RIAA when I’m living in Ethiopia or something, and I’m going to have to go back to the States and go to court for the Ludacris song that [my] stupid ex-boyfriend pirated when [I was] 19.”

Piracy isn’t only a student concern. The law requires universities to educate students about copyright law and respond to violation notices, explains Beth Harris, AB’74, Chicago’s vice president and general counsel. As long as the University stays compliant by informing students through e-mails, Web sites, and posters, and by enforcing copyright policies, it can’t be held liable for student file sharing.

Still, the MPAA and RIAA have not slackened their pursuit of student copyright violators, Harris says. “What came to us more recently were these notices of early settlements,” she notes. Before the early-settlement initiative, announced by the RIAA in February, copyright holders had left universities to their own disciplinary procedures for dealing with violations. Now the trade associations find users’ Internet Protocol addresses, the number that identifies their computer on a network, and then send notices to the University, which forwards them to the violator. Jackson explains, “The settlement letter says: go to a Web site, fess up, promise you’ll never do it again, and give us a credit card.” Typically, the RIAA charges violators $3,000.

As students contend with stiffer enforcement, legislative action could put institutions under strain. In July Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) planned to introduce an amendment to the Higher Education Act, legislation that affects funding and financial aid for colleges, which would have required the 25 universities with the most violations, as determined by the RIAA and MPAA, to adopt technology to hinder file sharing. The antipiracy software, according to the July 23 Chronicle of Higher Education, would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if the amendment passed. After higher-education officials protested through groups such as the Association of American Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, Reid withdrew his proposal. Legislators may resubmit an amendment similar to Reid’s when the act comes before the House of Representatives, but as of mid-August no vote had been held.

Jackson, winner of this year’s EDUCAUSE leadership award, given by a nonprofit that promotes information technology in higher education, is skeptical of such legislative initiatives. In his testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology, he warned against too much reliance on technological solutions. If universities regulate behavior through technology alone, rather than through educating students about responsible Internet use, skilled downloaders will subvert the software and continue violating copyright. He cautioned, “We get nothing but an arms race we can’t win.”