The popularity of online programs such as Kazaa, Stotella, and Napster that allow users to illegally download copyrighted music, movies and software has grown. As this has happened, the RIAA, as well as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), have been trying to stop their profit losses of close to $1 billion due to Internet piracy. Over the past year, the RIAA filed 260 lawsuits against users of these downloading programs for up to $150,000 per song. Other cases that involved college students settled for tens of thousands of dollars per song.
St. Olaf College is becoming part of the crusade against illegal downloading, although not necessarily of their own accord. In a letter emailed to students Sept. 19, Dean of Students Greg Kneser outlined the actions St. Olaf will take against students caught downloading illegal copies of songs, movies or software off the Internet.
The letter was the first communication concerning this subject sent to the entire student body, but warnings have been sent to offenders and those in student government whose computers are on the administrative network. St. Olaf has seen a rise in the number of students being reported over the last four years. Kneser said four years ago, only two students were caught downloading copyrighted music. But this year, about one student a week is caught. So far, after being caught, the students have not repeated the offense.
Many students do not understand the legal ins-and-outs of the copyright laws, or how they are in violation by downloading material. While it is not illegal to have the software such as Kazaa or Stotella on a computer, it is illegal to download and share copyrighted material. The program is able to share files without the knowledge of the user.
The RIAA, the main organization looking to prosecute users, can track individual computers online through each computers unique IP address. The RIAA then reports the IP address and a list of downloaded songs to St. Olaf Information and Instructional Technologies (IIT). IIT can then use that IP address to identify students through the network. St. Olaf itself is not tracking students downloading illegal material, but is notified by the RIAA.
IIT then reports the identity of the student to the dean of students office, and those students are temporarily suspended from the network until they meet with the dean to discuss the situation.
"The student is asked to remove the offending material from his or her computer," said Kneser. The first meeting is only a warning, but future violations can lead to loss of computing privileges and disciplinary actions through St. Olaf, as well as risk of being prosecuted in court by the RIAA. St. Olaf does not report the identities of the student users to the RIAA.
The role of the college in the war against online piracy is a complex one. Although St. Olaf is not being asked to identify students to the RIAA, there is no guarantee that this will remain the case. Furthermore, should the RIAA subpoena the college to gain access to student download records, this will present a new set of legal complexities.
"The RIAA does have a right to request colleges to help investigate these violations," said Kneser. The college will question the legal authority of the subpoena, should it happen, and try to define its role in the legal proceeding while protecting the privacy of the college and the students. Although the college will do its best to protect the privacy of students and the college, it cannot protect students from prosecution. "Right now colleges are sitting back and waiting to see what will happen," said Kneser.
Many are questioning the tactics the RIAA is using to prosecute offenders. "The RIAA is using the law in a heavy-handed way to achieve its aims," said Kneser. Many students feel that the recording and motion picture industries make enough profit that their individual transgressions do not matter, but with the RIAA losing $1 billion a year in prospective profits, it has been proved that the illegal downloading of songs and movies off the internet has put a dent in the profits of the industry.