Copyright Sleuths May Be Targeting Universities

The growth of peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing networks has enabled music and entertainment lovers to download content more easily. It has also created a windfall for copyright infringement lawsuits, with much of the activity focused on college students.

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, a copyright owner is entitled to issue a subpoena for an ISP to learn the identity of someone accused of copyright infringement, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).


EFF, ISPs and other groups fought the subpoena power in 2003, but lost what it described as the first rounds of the court battle. Between August and September of 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) issued more than 1,500 subpoenas to ISPs. The battle has been ongoing.

Suits Surge At Central Michigan

Central Michigan University (CMU) has faced a surge in copyright infringement lawsuits over illegal downloading of Internet content, reported Central Michigan Life, a campus news source.

CMU reported the number of such complaints jumped from 314 in 2014 to 1,388 in 2014, according to Roger Rehm, vice president for information technology and chief information officer. In 2015, the number continues to increase: there were 1,192 at the end of October. November numbers won’t be released until sometime in December.Cr

Movie studios and record companies hire organizations to monitor the Internet for illegal downloading. In addition, the Entertainment Software Association and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) also file infringement notices.

Rehm said these organizations target college campuses.

Some universities have refused to cooperate with the industry complaints against students.

The complaints provide an IP address to the university, which then identifies the individual who downloaded the content. The university does not identify the individual to the company, Rehm said. Instead, the university passes the complaint on to the offender.

Enforcement Firm Comes On The Scene

Rightscorp Inc., a Los Angeles, Calif.-based copyright enforcement company that represents Warner Bros. and BMG Rights Management, filed most of the complaints at CMU in 2014 and 2015, according to Mark Strandskov, the Office of Information Technology’s associate director.

In 2014, Rightscorp sent 899 complaints to CMU, accounting for about 65 of all received complaints.In 2015, Rightscorp sent 1,848 complaints.
In addition to Rightscorp., CMU received complaints from MarkMonitor and IP-Echelon.

Rightscorp offered to settle a with a student for downloading “The Lord of The Rings: Return of the King” for $30 in addition to seizing distributing or copying Warner Bros. content, according to a letter Strandskov provided.

The letter indicated the conduct “substantially exceeds $30,” but Warner Bros. is prepared to settle for his amount in the interest of stopping the copy infringement.

The university sends the offending student an email advising them that the infringement is illegal and could result in a lawsuit for monetary damages. The email advises students the university will not provide legal support should a copyright owner sue.

Should there be a second notice of infringement for the same IP address within two days of the initial complaint, the office delivers it to the student and informs the Office of Student Conduct. A second infringement notice carries a $150 fine from the university. The university may also block the student from accessing the Internet on their PC.

The fine increases to $300 if there is a third infringement notice. The university can also dismiss the student.

Students can appeal a complaint, according to Tom Idema, director of the Office of Student Conduct.

One CMU student, Nick Galanos, was fined for downloading “Blades of Glory” and “The Town.” In this case, the student received a notice in April. Galanos first lied and said his roommate used the computer to download the movies. After being told he could make his case to a hearing officer, Galanos gave the university permission to charge $100 to his account.

Record Industry Fights P2P Technology

The recording industry has taken action against P2P technology companies following a June 2005 Supreme Court ruling in MGM v., Grokster, according to the EFF.

In April of 2003, the recording industry sued four college students for developing and maintaining search engines that allowed them to download files from other students on their campus networks. The suit claimed the students ran a campus search engine for music using software like DirectConnect, FlatLan and Phynd to search campus networks and index files shared by students who were using file-sharing protocols. The complaints claimed the students also downloaded infringing music.

The students settled the cases for between $12,000 and $17,500 apiece.

In 2004, the RIAA filed more lawsuits, including a wave of suits against university students that brought the total number of suits to 7,437.

Cassi Hunt, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who said she was in debt to cover tuition, attempted to negotiate with RIAA which was proposing a $3,750 settlement. The RIAA representative suggested she drop out of school to pay the settlement, according to EFF.

Also read: Senator Al Franken wants investigation of Apple Music

RIAA Targets Students In 2007

In 2007, RIAA announced an initiative targeting college students nationwide, according to EFF. In a 2008 update on this initiative, EFF noted that RIAA sends “pre-litigation” letters every month to various universities asking that they forward the letters to unidentified students. The letters identify the IP address, threaten further legal action with damages as high as $750 per song, and offer a reduced settlement if the student pays a non-negotiable amount (around $3,00) within 20 days of receiving the letter.

If the student fails to respond, the labels file a “John Doe” suit.

RIAA targeted 2,926 college students at close to 100 universities across U.S. campuses in the first six months of this initiative, EFF said. Within a year, the RIAA sent more than 5,400 letters to 160 schools and allegedly collected millions of dollars.

University responses to the campaign have varied. The University of Maine, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Maine and the University of Kansas have refused to forward the letters, claiming they would not act as the RIAA’s “legal agent,” according to EFF.

Lester Coleman is a veteran business journalist based in the United States. He has covered the payments industry for several years and is available for writing assignments.