Brown University students who allegedly used the school’s computer network to illegally copy and share digital music are being hit with fines or the threat of lawsuits.
Twelve pre-litigation letters sent on behalf of a recording industry association arrived at the university last month and were forwarded to the students. The letters offered the students an out-of-court settlement that included them each paying a fine of about $3,000, or facing the prospect of a copyright-infringement lawsuit.
The dispute puts Brown at the center of a battle the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is waging on college campuses across the country to protect its copyright, as students use a post-Napster generation of technologies capable of downloading entire music catalogues in minutes.
More than 4,000 college students have received pre-litigation letters since February, when the recording industry began a campaign to target illegal file sharing on campus, said Cara Duckworth, an RIAA spokeswoman.
Eight of the 12 Brown students who received pre-litigation notices in November have already settled with the recording industry, Duckworth said.
Eight other Brown students who got pre-litigation letters from the RIAA in April also settled out of court. Four other Brown students who declined to settle out of court are being sued by the music industry, which subpoenaed the university in early December for their names (the RIAA only knows their IP addresses), Duckworth said.
Brown is so far the only college or university in Rhode Island where students have been targeted for illegal file sharing, she said.
Jake Heimark, a sophomore at Brown studying economics and human biology, said most of his friends illegally download and share music on a regular basis.
“Most of my friends still don’t feel that it’s illegal,” Heimark said. “Or even if they know it is, they don’t think that it should be illegal. It’s the same thing as the [age] 21 drinking law – for whatever reason, kids just don’t respect it.”
The rampant file sharing is cutting deeply into the recording industry’s profits. Music sales have declined by about $3 billion since the online music-sharing platform Napster became popular almost a decade ago, primarily due to illegal theft of music, Duckworth said.
College students alone accounted for more than 1.3 billion illegal music downloads last year, according to market research firm NPD. Music piracy is conducted disproportionately on campuses because of the high-speed networks maintained by most universities that offer students virtually unlimited bandwidth, Duckworth said.
Napster adopted a legal business model after a judge outlawed free music sharing on its platform in 2001, but other technology platforms that enable people to illegally share music, movies and TV shows have taken its place.
Heimark, the Brown student, said most of his friends illegally share digital music via LimeWire, a Web site that allows people to download music on a song-by-song basis, and BitTorrent, a search engine that enables the download of entire discographies of 10 or 12 discs in about 10 minutes.
Heimark, who said he does not illegally share music, said his circle of friends at Brown was surprised last spring when one among them received a pre-litigation letter from the RIAA. But illegal file sharing has continued among the group, he said.
“I think that that scared a lot of people. … [They] kind of woke up that this is actually happening,” Heimark said. “But on the other hand, so many people do it and so few get caught that it’s not really much of a deterrent.” •