Last Thursday, the Recording Industry Association of America sent out the 13th wave of pre-litigation settlement letters to college students across the country accused of engaging in illegal file-sharing activity. While this most recent round of settlement letters did not target Cornell students, the actions drew attention to the entertainment industry’s ongoing effort to enforce copyright infringement laws on college campuses.
The latest initiative, described by the RIAA as “one piece of a multi-faceted industry campaign to encourage fans to enjoy music legally,” sent 401 pre-litigation settlement letters to college students at 12 universities across the country. The letters, which identified individuals who had used peer-to-peer file sharing networks to illegally download music files, stipulated that recipients can pay a settlement fee to avoid further litigation.
The RIAA cited that they have sent approximately 5,406 pre-litigation settlement letters to college students since last February. Of those cases, over 2,300 were settled and 2,465 ended in lawsuits.
In May, the RIAA filed 16 lawsuits against Cornell students who had previously received pre-litigation settlement letters and had failed to pay the $3,000 settlement fee.
Teresa Peltier ’10, was sent a settlement letter last spring but choose not to pay the specified fee.
“I filed a ‘hardship claim,’ which basically says they are suing me [for] way more than I could ever afford to pay,” Peltier explained. “The main problem for people, including myself, is I can’t just afford to go to the website, enter my credit card and pay $3,000.”
According to Tracy Mitrano law ’95, director of information technology policy and computer policy and law programs for the Office of Information Technologies, this most recent step by the RIAA exemplifies the entertainment industry’s increased lobbying power in national politics.
In 2007, the Higher Education Act, which was initially intended to provide federal financial assistance to students pursuing higher education, was restructured to include an amendment requiring institutions receiving the greatest number of Digital Millennium Copyright notices to install filtering systems on their campus’s networks. Though the amendment was withdrawn, the entertainment industry brought it back to the House of Representatives.
“[The entertainment industry] has influenced legislation, which should be a deep concern to higher education and a deep concern for students,” Mitrano asserted.
Mitrano said the University frequently receives DMC notices, which are sent from various entertainment companies and forwarded to students accused of copyright infringement at institutions nationwide.
“We never provide [the student’s personal] information to content owners,” Mitrano confirmed.
Instead, she explained, the Office of Information Technologies handles such cases internally, requiring first-time offenders to take an online copyright education program.
“College students are taking the brunt of this tactic,” Prof. Tarleton Gillespie, communication, stated in an e-mail. “It hits young adults just as they have a little disposable income, it hits them in a place where they’re still supposed to be educated [in] good citizenship, it hits people in a context where word will get around.”
“All the research we’ve seen indicates college kids as the most prolific illegal downloaders,” said Cary Sherman ’68, president of the RIAA.
According to Sherman, who cited a survey by Student Monitor from 2006, over half of college students illegally download music and movie files.
“These numbers are unacceptable, especially given every college student in the nation has access to free, legal music through services,” Sherman stated in an e-mail.
However, the accuracy of these numbers is questionable. On Jan. 23 the Motion Picture Association of America disclosed that they had overestimated the number of college-age individuals held accountable for the illegal file sharing. While the MPAA had claimed in 2005 that the specified demographic could be held accountable for 44 percent of illegal file sharing, it recently retracted the statistic, which was proven to be erroneous. College-age individuals, according to the MPAA, only represent 15 percent of those illegally engaging in the sharing of copyrighted material.
While Mitrano conceded that it is understandable why the entertainment industry would go after the college-age demographic, she disapproves of their methods of enforcing copyright law.
“To some degree, I can understand why they would look for that network space. But I’m not sure a ‘cat and mouse’ game of catching people and threatening lawsuits is the best strategy to represent the music [industry] in a digital world,” Mitrano said.
Caroline Luppescu ’10, who was sent a settlement letter last spring and paid the $3,000 settlement fee, voiced her frustration with the RIAA’s method for policing college students.
“I think the RIAA is handling the situation unfairly. I understand that my case was clearly just used as an example to scare people. If you are going to sue one person, sue everyone, especially since the severity of my piracy was not nearly as bad as others I know. This shows that I was arbitrarily chosen,” Luppescu said.
Sherman affirmed that taking legal action against college students was a compulsory step in curtailing copyright infringement.
“Bringing lawsuits was not our first choice, but a necessary part of a bigger strategy aimed at curtailing the use of illegal sites to get music. Illegal services such as Limewire don’t pay a penny to the artists whose music is traded on these sites. Because of this, all those who help bring music to the public are not fairly compensated for their work, and emerging artists have already paid the price,” Sherman said. “Many have been dropped from rosters and countless others have been passed over by labels who can’t afford to invest in them.”