RIAA Sends Schools a P2P Heads Up

In a new legal campaign launched today against illegal peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is offering college and university students a chance to settle before they get sued.

On behalf of the major music labels, the RIAA sent 400 “pre-litigation” settlement letters to 13 different colleges and universities. Each letter informs the school of a forthcoming copyright infringement lawsuit against one of its students or personnel.

The RIAA wants the schools to forward the letters to their students. Each letter offers a student a “discounted rate” to settle copyright infringement charges. The RIAA wouldn’t disclose what the discount is, but the group is effectively giving students a chance to settle before it sues them.

“We understand that no deterrence or education program will ‘solve’ piracy,” Mitch Bainwol, the RIAA’s chairman and CEO, said at a national teleconference. “The theft of music remains unacceptably high and undermines the industry’s ability to invest in new music. This is especially the case on college campuses.”

Bainwol called the new campaign a “significant ratcheting up” of the RIAA’s war on illegal P2P music file sharing. The organization has sued 8,000 students over the last three years, he said, and plans to send 5,000 of the pre-litigation letters in the next 12 months.

“Today, virtually no one can claim they don’t know it’s illegal, particularly technology-savvy students,” RIAA President Cary Sherman said. “Massive theft is still going on.”

Sherman added that because some students are “impervious to even the most compelling educational messages or legal alternatives, these new efforts aim to help students recognize that the consequences for illegal downloading are more real than ever before.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a longtime critic of the music industry’s P2P lawsuits, quickly countered that the RIAA’s campaign is doomed.

“It’s not a particularly good strategy,” Rebecca Jeschke, the EFF’s media relations coordinator, told internetnews.com. “The kids will move on to other technologies.”

An EFF blog post, for instance, notes students could easily migrate from P2P to readily accessible technologies like copying music through iTunes over the campus LANS, swapping hard drives and USB Flash drives, burning recordable DVDs or forming ad hoc wireless networks.

The EFF contends the RIAA’s blizzard of legal paperwork forces colleges and universities to divert resources and puts the schools in a position of not being able to evaluate the merits of any one particular complaint from the RIAA. Many schools lack procedural safeguards to protect students wrongly accused by the RIAA, the EFF notes, and have adopted stricter penalties than the law requires.

There are legal users of P2P Jeschke said. And they’re the ones who will be unfairly restricted.

Despite the landmark 2005 Grokster Supreme Court decision and a flood of subsequent infringement lawsuits, the music industry has failed to put much of a dent in illegal P2P music file sharing.

A recent survey by the Intellectual Property Institute at the University of Richmond’s School of Law found that more than half of college students download music and movies illegally.

“A legal marketplace that barely existed in 2003 is now a billion dollar business showing real promise,” Bainwol said. “Many rogue sites have gone under, and fans have a far better understanding of the right and wrong ways to enjoy music.”

Nevertheless, Bainwol added, “No matter how much we adapt…any new business model must always necessarily rely upon a respect for property rights. That’s why we must continue to enforce our rights.”

The RIAA said its new deterrence initiative will focus more heavily on Gnutella-based networks such as LimeWire, which are becoming more popular. In August, the RIAA sued LimeWire for what it called “staggering” copyright infringement. LimeWire did not return a request for comment.

Of the colleges notified today of the pre-litigation letters, Ohio University heads the list 50 notices, followed by North Carolina State University (37), Syracuse University (37), University of Massachusetts, Amherst (37), University of Nebraska, Lincoln (36), University of Texas, Austin (33), University of South Florida (31), Northern Illinois University (28), University of Tennessee, Knoxville (28), Arizona State University (23), Marshall University (20), North Dakota State University (20) and University of Southern California (20).

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