By TIM WARDLE
Capital News Service
LANSING – In the war against illegal piracy of movies and music, a contentious
relationship has developed between some universities and groups that represent the
movie and music industry.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has long asserted that
college students are the leading culprits in illegally downloading music. The organization
contends that more than half of college students download music and movies illegally.
Universities, in general, comply with industry organizations such as the RIAA
and its film counterpart, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), because
they act as an Internet service provider (ISP) and closely monitor their users’ web
activity. Current law doesn’t compel commercial ISPs, such as Comcast or Time Warner
Cable Inc., since they almost never track what their clients do on the Internet.
The volume of illegal downloading seems to parallel the size of the university,
according to RIAA figures. Michigan State University, the largest school in the state, was
once cited by the industry as one of the worst offenders, in terms of illegal downloaders.
At Eastern Michigan University, roughly half the size of MSU, administrators say
they haven’t had much of a problem with this issue.
“We receive only handful of infringement complaints per year from the RIAA and
the MPAA,” said Rocky Jenkins, EMU’s director of network and system services.
David Gift, MSU vice-provost for libraries, computing and technology, said the
university “cares about adequate protection of intellectual property because we generate
Gift said that while MSU has cooperated with the RIAA for more than six years –
ever since the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which strengthened the industry’s ability
to combat illegal downloading - he has become leery of the tactics used against students.
Recently, Gift said, the RIAA began sending what he characterized as
“threatening” letters to the university to pass on to students whom the industry suspects
of downloading illegally. The letter informs a student that he or she will be sued unless a
fee is paid, by credit card. The amount demanded is generally between $3,000 and
Gift said courts have stopped the practice in a few states, but not in Michigan.
According to both Jenkins and Gift, a student can be caught when his or her
Internet Protocol (IP) address, or the numerical code that represents an individual
computer, is found to be either downloading or uploading copyrighted material. The
industry then tracks that IP address and is able to find out what the ISP is, though not the
violator’s name. The industry then contacts the ISP, demanding it take action against the
Generally, universities in Michigan employ similar tactics in dealing with illegal
downloaders. Western Michigan University and MSU both treat a student’s first offense
as an “educational opportunity” because students have often been downloading since they
first learned to use a computer, believing they were not going to be caught.
On the second offense, both universities block a student’s personal computer from
the network for one week. The student is still free to use public computers on campus.
“For a college student to lose network connectivity is tantamount to getting
kicked out of school,” said Gift.
After a third offense, an MSU student is referred to the university’s judicial affairs
program, which could result in suspension or even expulsion from school. A WMU
student, by contrast, could lose access to the Internet for a whole semester.
At EMU, a student is immediately referred to the university’s judicial affairs after
the first offense and his or her computer is disconnected from the campus network.
Richard Burton, who works in WMU’s office of information technology, the unit
which handles such cases, said he had never seen a fourth offense.
The RIAA described MSU as one of five “success stories” in halting illegal
downloading. The other four are the University of South Carolina, Howard University in
Washington D.C., Seton Hall in New Jersey and Ohio State University.