Fourteen unnamed UA students will have more than midterms to worry about this week: They're being sued for copyright infringement as part of the recording industry's scattershot scheme to discourage (and cash in on) Internet file sharing.
According to the Arizona Daily Star, last Tuesday attorneys representing the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade association for major record labels, asked a federal judge to subpoena the UA and require the university to reveal the names of 14 students suspected of swapping songs. Although the latest lawsuits hit close to home for UA students, they're just a small part of a Phyrric campaign launched in 2002 in which the record industry has sued more than 20,000 of its own customers.
The process is simple. First, the RIAA snoops on your file-sharing traffic by downloading songs and recording the IP addresses - unique Internet identifiers - of users sharing music online. Provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, federal legislation passed in 1998 to cover intellectual property online, allow them to subpoena Internet service providers and force them to reveal the names of suspected filesharers.
Then, lawyers for the recording industry ask for exorbitant damages from those accused of file sharing, usually $750 per song. That means their total claimed damages are astronomical: In the case of the accused UA students, cited for sharing between 131 and 1,466 songs, damages would range from $98,250 to an absurd $1.09 million. Faced with a difficult legal battle and the cost of hiring a defense lawyer - often enough to drive a starving student into bankruptcy - most choose to settle by paying the RIAA $3,000 to $4,000.
The record industry makes settlement as easy as possible. Before initiating a lawsuit, they send ""pre-litigation settlement letters"" to students accused of file sharing, offering the opportunity to avoid a lawsuit in exchange for a little cash. Last year, they even set up a Web site that allows users to pay with a credit card, making the process as easy as shopping online.
The RIAA sent 14 pre-litigation letters to the UA on Dec. 6, in advance of this week's lawsuits, along with another 382 to other universities around the country. But the UA's Dean of Students' Office doesn't forward those letters to students, citing liability concerns about playing a part in the record industry's shakedown scheme.
That's good. The RIAA's strategy is coercive, destructive and stupid, and the UA ought to remain as uninvolved as possible while enforcing its own rules about appropriate use of university computer networks.
Despite the sheer folly of the recording industry's lawsuits, however, its actions are perfectly legal. Although one enterprising victim of the RIAA's lawsuits launched a counterattack, seeking to charge the recording industry under federal racketeering laws, her complaint was dismissed two weeks ago by a U.S. District Court judge.
That leaves the 14 accused students with little legal recourse. Like most, they'll likely choose to settle and avoid a battle with the enormous organization.
The RIAA's tactics may scare students away from sharing, but they will do nothing to repair the record industry's broken, anachronistic business model. Record labels are increasingly obsolete as artists offer innovative forms of digital music directly to their fans - see Radiohead's In Rainbows last year, and Nine Inch Nails' surprise online offering this week for examples. But until the dinosaurs of the music industry are finally wiped out, UA students would do well to watch their tracks online.