RIAA targets students for illegal file-sharing
Pre-litigation letters are part of a deterrance program on college campuses
August 29, 2007 10:11 PM
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sent pre-litigation settlement letters to 12 SF State students. While the RIAA has sent warning notices to the university in the past, the letters sent on July 18 marked the first time SF State has received pre-litigation letters, which allows students to avert a lawsuit for illegal file-sharing and copyright infringement, according to a RIAA press release.
The RIAA and university administrators would not release the names of the 12 students because of Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act regulations.
The RIAA pre-litigation letters are part of a deterrence program for college campuses launched in Feb. 2007. Students have 20 days to respond to the pre-litigation letters, but the RIAA extended the period to 40 days for letters sent in the summer. The company does not publicly disclose their settlement rates.
“The earlier on in the process that an individual settles, the lesser amount the proposed settlement will be and they can avoid a public mark on their record,” said a spokesperson from the RIAA. “If the student chooses not to settle, then we’ll go ahead with filing a lawsuit against the student.”
RIAA pre-litigation letters are commonly used to publicize and “scare people,” said James Wagstaffe, a San Francisco attorney and SF State professor who specializes in First Amendment and media law. Wagstaffe has represented a high school student that was sent a similar letter from the RIAA. In most cases, students will reach a settlement.
“The overall strategy for them is to have enough suits to make everyone afraid,” Wagstaffe said. “You don’t go to trial in these suits because, unfortunately, you don't have a very good defense. When you’re caught speeding and you say everyone else is speeding, it’s not a very good defense.”
Wagstaffe said the pre-litigation letters are also a warning to university administrators.
“[The RIAA] also do this to scare the university,” he said. “Students then receive notices from schools telling them to not download on the university’s Wi-Fi.”
The letters were sent to the Department of Information Technology, and then forwarded to the students via Residential Services, said Jo Volkert, Associate Vice President of Enrollment Planning and Management. Volkert said the incidents occurred in student housing.
While other universities block the use of peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing programs, SF State’s university housing Internet network, Resnet, have no plans to block programs such as Kazaa and Limewire, said Philippe Cumia, Associate Director of Residential Administrative Services.
“The programs have legal uses as well as illegal,” Cumia said in an email to [X]press, adding that “Residential Services is taking no actions other than notifying the students in writing about the RIAA letters.”
However, the Department of Information Technology (DOIT) is discussing the possibility of blocking P2P file-sharing software from the network in the future, according to Volkert.
David Middleton, a lab coordinator in DOIT, said other problems arise from the use of P2P file-sharing programs.
Middleton said the network also gets overloaded from the downloading of music and video, which causes the network to slow down, eliciting student complaints.
“It’s a copyright issue whether it’s music or video or plagiarism,” said Middleton. “Copyright has always been a problem at universities.”
While the RIAA sends out new letters monthly, music artists have commonly offered some of their songs for free, according to Greg Gaston, the program director of the music/recording industry program at SF State’s Center of Extended Learning. The center offers a course about how to retain the money and rights to songs.
“The recording industry is asserting that people in their 30s are not buying CDs,” Gaston said. “The trend is to give music away for free and put it on MySpace and then make your money through touring and t-shirts. I’m not sure what kind of luck [the RIAA] will have suing students for money. Most students are really savvy and have been finding free music for years.”
Volkert said when this has occurred in the past, the university would reprimand residential students that have received warning letters from the RIAA by immediately disconnecting the student’s internet access.
“It’s under discussion whether the penalties will increase,” she said. “[Students] are contacted and warned that we have received this letter, and then we reinstate their internet. If it’s the second incident, it’s referred to judicial affairs.”
Philosophy major Erendira Vallejo, 24, is in opposition to the RIAA’s position on P2P sharing.
“I don’t think [the RIAA] should take legal action,” Vallejo said. “I can see it if people are selling [music files] and making a profit, but if they’re sharing it, it shouldn’t be a legal issue. Record companies can’t tell us what to do once we buy the music.”
Most recently in August, the RIAA sent another batch of letters to 58 college campuses. SF State was not among the campuses listed. Since February, the RIAA has sent 2,926 pre-litigation letters and reached 1,000 settlement agreements, an RIAA spokesperson said.
Students may pay their settlement by going to www.p2plawsuits.com. They can then enter their case identification number and pay via credit card.
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