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Copyrights: More Work, More Headaches

I think I should clarify that I do support copyright enforcement. But I also stand for due process.

Much has been said of the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) pending court battle to learn the identity of a Verizon DSL user that knowingly and repeatedly infringed on copyrights. The stigma of peer-to-peer file-sharing is now about the same as stealing cable and perhaps rightfully so. To this extent, RIAA's campaigns have served as effective deterrents. But what deserves more attention is the impact those campaigns are having.

While the RIAA is well armed with its arsenal of lawyers, it lacks the technical expertise to implement its policies. Rather, it relies on network administrators from the public and private sector to do much of the work to enforce the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

"Welcome to the new world of copyrights," said William Brawley of Dartmouth Computing Services, the central computing group for the Ivy League school. "What the industry has done with DMCA is shifted a lot of the policing to people like me."

Dartmouth is a school of only about 5,500 students. For schools like Michigan or Ohio State, the task must be enormous. And with absolutely no incentive provided to administrators aside from legal threats, the RIAA is facing a seemingly endless, uphill battle. Still, network administrators like Brawley want to protect their institutions so they do the grunt work.

He now receives takedown notices from the entertainment industry on a daily basis. When he gets one, it takes him 15 to 30 minutes to root around on his network's records to find the perpetrator. Without ever notifying the complainant, the "perp" is then ferreted out and adequately dealt with -- either via warning or purging files. Once completed, Brawley can then go back to what he was hired to do: publish manuals and/or handouts or communicate general interest information such as security postings.

Recently, outgoing Chairman and CEO Hilary Rosen added fuel to its fire testifying on Capitol Hill about the "growing epidemic" of copyright infringement on our nation's college campuses. "Last week, Universal Studios decided to turn on the juice. Other schools were getting them in the hundreds. We were getting them in batches of six," Brawley explained.

But in the cases of 2,300 colleges and universities across the country, the RIAA and the industry might be overstepping their legal boundaries. What works in the Verizon case might not work when dealing with colleges and universities because of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

According to FERPA, school officials are permitted to access student records but outside organizations like RIAA would need "to comply with a judicial order or lawfully issued subpoena." Currently, all takedown notices originate from industry lawyers, not a judge or a court of law.

It's not clear if IP addresses or ISP records are included in FERPA's provisions. It's also not clear if any student has yet challenged the entertainment industry's latest barrage under FERPA. If FERPA does apply, one thing is certain -- the legal process is being usurped.

For now, Brawley continues to police his network on behalf of the entertainment industry for Dartmouth's sake. "I think they would be really happy if people who do networking policy administration continue to error on the conservative side."

But as for his FERPA concerns, he added: "I'd be eager to get some advice on that question from our legal department."

Bob Liu is executive editor of internet.com's News Channel, which includes the flagship internetnews.com Web site.