I’m not implying this ever really happened, but …
Just suppose, hypothetically of course, that a friend slapped down $8.99 and bought Eric Clapton’s “Slow Hand” album, brand new — so new that the vinyl LP (yes, this scenario would happen in 1977) crackled with static when it first slid out of the jacket. Then, that friend dubbed a copy onto one of those new-fangled cassette tapes and gave it to you. (Probably because he owed you money for, say, pizza.)
Think that was OK?
Well, you might as well have just ripped the tag off a mattress in a department store, because it was against federal law.
Turn the clock forward 30 years. A college kid goes to the CD shop, looking for The Disturbed (that’s a band) and buys it. The kid takes it back to his dorm room and makes an MP3 copy of that CD, which is perfectly legal. But then he decides to put that MP3 copy onto the Internet through a file-sharing network, allowing thousands, maybe millions, of other network users to download it for free. That’s perfectly illegal.
What’s the difference between the 1977 and 2007 instances? Ethically, it’s probably a draw. But 21st-century technology makes it possible to cross that line without ever spending a dime.
And it is those temptations that have placed college students squarely in the crosshairs of the recording industry.
On Tuesday, the Recording Industry Association of America — the enforcer for major labels — filed lawsuits for illegal file sharing against 23 network users (presumably students) at Indiana University. On May 3, the RIAA filed 21 similar lawsuits against network users at Purdue. Since it began an “anti-piracy initiative” in January, the RIAA has sent litigation warnings to more than 1,600 people on college campuses around the nation. These students could end up paying thousands of dollars (up to $750 per song) in damages for infringing on music copyrights.
Details of their transgressions might sound like gibberish to folks of LP vintage. Some may have joined file-sharing networks, where they can download unauthorized copies of copyrighted songs for free from other members’ computers. Others might have paid to join a file-sharing network that isn’t authorized to provide copies of copyrighted music, so they can download anything available.
In a nutshell, this free downloading and uploading isn’t legal, and the music labels, whose revenues have dropped, are on the offensive.
Illegal downloading is a forest fire-sized problem for the recording industry, said Ted Piechocinski, director of Indiana State University’s music business program and an expert in copyright laws. Targeting college-age offenders, for the RIAA, is like “putting out brush fires.” Yet Piechocinski, who worked for music companies that handled print publishing for the Dave Matthews Band and Metallica, understands that the record labels are trying to send a message.
“I think that it’s worked, in that it’s gotten attention,” Piechocinski said. “[The RIAA] is being the hammer for the record companies.”
College campuses are getting whacked by that hammer this year. The RIAA promises to continue its roundup of violators every month “indefinitely,” said Jenni Engebretsen, RIAA spokeswomen.
“It’s fair to say that any student on any campus that is engaging in this illegal activity is opening themselves to receiving letters of litigation in the months ahead,” Engebretsen said by telephone from Washington, D.C.
There is no shortage of targets. A survey done for the RIAA in 2006 found that half — half — of all college students download music and movies illegally. And college kids get 25 percent of their music from illegal downloads, compared to 16 percent of the general population.
There are two prime reasons for the wave — teenagers and twentysomethings love new music, and they know how to get it. Campuses possess the best computers.
“[Universities] have got the big, pretty, powerful servers on campus. It makes it so easy,” Piechocinski said. “And you’ve got a nucleus of kids whose lives revolve around music, and they just feed off each other.”
The RIAA wave has hit more than 60 college campuses since January, including IU and Purdue, but ISU hasn’t received any of the lawsuit threats. Piechocinski credits the university’s Office of Information Technology with vigilantly monitoring use of its network. ISU’s Web site also contains a warning to students about using file-sharing programs Morpheus, KaZaA, iMesh, Blubster and eDonkey 2000, contending these applications bog down the personal computers and the network, open students up to unwanted third-party invaders, and leave users vulnerable to RIAA lawsuits.
At IU, officials are discussing beginning campus-wide forums this fall to educate students on the risks, said Damon Sims, associate vice president for student affairs. With several other Big Ten schools involved in the RIAA’s pursuit of illegal file-sharers, the conference’s 11 colleges may band together to cope with the recording industry’s tactics.
IU does not endorse students pirating music or movies, Sims emphasized, but Indiana and other Big Ten schools may act together “to more strongly be advocates for our students’ interests and the institutions’ interests.”
One ethical debate arises in the RIAA’s quest for violators. The offenders are traced through their Internet protocol addresses, which are anonymous. The RIAA sends e-mail threats of litigation to a university, requesting that the school forward those letters to the spotted IP addresses. Most, such as IU and Purdue, have complied. Subpoenas could follow, if not. The RIAA has offered students a chance to settle out of court for a discounted amount — $3,000. So far, 500 of the 1,600 cited have taken that offer. Twenty-three at IU and 21 at Purdue did not take the deal.
Technology could ease the situation. A company born in Terre Haute, through Rose-Hulman Ventures, will soon launch the music industry’s first variable pricing model for MP3 downloads. That firm — which began as musicrebellion.com and grew into Digonex Technologies — is the brainchild of Terre Haute’s Jan Eglen, a psychologist who developed that legal music downloading company that has since moved to downtown Indianapolis and expanded to 25 employees, including a corps of graduates from Rose-Hulman and other Indiana colleges.
Now, instead of downloads, Digonex specializes in pricing systems for a variety of businesses, including record labels. And Eglen, who wrote a book analyzing the illegal downloading problem called “A Fogging of Basic Values,” sees his company offering a remedy. Most legal downloads cost a basic 99 cents now. Through Digonex’s pricing, based on a song’s popular demand, the prices could range from 29 cents to $1.39. Downloaders put off by the flat 99-cent fee may go legal when they see the less expensive offerings.
“It’s a lot cheaper to pay 29 cents for something than to risk a $5,000 fine,” Eglen said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (812) 231-4377.
I’m not implying this ever really happened, but …
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