By Jane Black It's the most brazen crackdown on music file-sharing so far. On Nov. 21, the U.S. Naval Academy seized almost 100 computers from students suspected of downloading unauthorized copies of songs from the Internet. If the midshipmen are found guilty, they could be punished by losing leave, being court martialed, or even expeled. Could it be that the Navy is full of pirates?
Music pirates, that is. Annapolis' confiscation comes on the heels of a letter the Recording Industry of America (RIAA) sent to the Naval Academy and another sent to nearly 2,300 colleges in October. In those missives, the trade group pleaded for cooperation from university computer network administrators in its bid to eliminate file-sharing of copyrighted music on the Internet.
College campuses are known to be hotbeds of illegal downloading since many universities provide students with ultrafast broadband connections. It's a problem not only for record labels, which saw sales decline 7% year-over-year in the first six months of 2002, but also for the universities, whose networks are clogged with copies of the latest Eminem tune or Hollywood blockbuster.
IS IT THEFT? Is this a harbinger? Will 2003's televised perp walks feature a parade of students, rather than this year's cavalcade of disgraced CEOs? Don't count on it. If anything, the Naval Academy's crackdown appears to be galvanizing student file-swappers' efforts to beat the system. And though many college network administrators might like to take back their bandwidth, most universities will have to tread much more carefully than the U.S. Navy did when it comes to monitoring students.
Internet bulletin boards were buzzing on Nov. 25 when the news of Annapolis' crackdown hit. At SlashDot, an Internet discussion forum on technology that's admittedly anything but RIAA-friendly, 313 members posted mostly outraged comments. "What's next? Raiding the Congress and White House, FBI headquarter[s], CIA headquarters, and Pentagon?" one user jibed. "It's too bad bin Laden doesn't use [peer-to-peer networks]. We might finally go after him."
On other message boards, the hordes hotly debated whether downloading music really is theft, as the RIAA claims. "'Theft' is a harsh word, but that it is, pure and simple," the RIAA wrote in its letter to the universities. "It is no different from walking into the campus bookstore and in a clandestine manner walking out with a textbook without paying for it."
INCORRIGIBLE. Not so, say file swappers: Downloading audio files is often infringement of copyright, but it's not stealing. That argument may or may not hold up in court, but one fact seems to keep eluding the RIAA: File swappers aren't inclined to change their ways.
That's one reason the trade group, and its sister organization the Motion Picture Association of America, has decided to target individual downloaders. Though the industry has consistently triumphed over file-sharing services such as Napster and its heirs in court, swapping continues to grow. On any given day, nearly 4 million people are logged on to the popular Fast Track trading network, according to Market Research Big Champagne. An additional 1.7 million are using six smaller trading nodes. Yankee Group projects that 11.4 billion audio files will be traded in 2004, up from 7.9 billion in 2001.
Trying to stamp out piracy at universities will continue to be an uphill battle. "This is a tempest in a teapot" says Sheldon Steinbach, vice-president and general council of the American Council on Education (ACE), which sent a companion letter in October along with the RIAA urging colleges to revisit their computer-usage policies.
HANDS-OFF APPROACH. Most universities have neither the right, nor the inclination, to seize student computers. Fears are rampant that the ubiquitous monitoring required to eliminate file-sharing would chill free speech and squelch the creativity that's an integral part of university life. The result: Though many colleges would love to rid their networks of the file-sharing plague, most take a rather hands-off approach to the problem.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, if a student is found to have a copy of, say, the new James Bond movie stored on the network, the university will remove it and notify the computer user. If the student complains and can justify the use of the film -- say, he's writing his thesis on Bond's influence on gender roles -- the college will restore the file.
At Tufts University in Medford, Mass., administrators put an emphasis on copyright education. Every freshman attends an orientation seminar on infringement before getting access to a broadband hookup that carries traffic 10 times as fast as most consumer high-speed Internet connections. Still, Tufts gets from 5 to 10 infringement complaints per week. It duly investigates them all and, if necessary, will consider revoking bandwidth privileges.
DIFFERENT STANDARDS. Either way, Tufts doesn't talk of expulsion. "We take copyright infringement very seriously. But we're not the Naval Academy," says Bruce Metz, vice-president for information technology at Tufts.
Indeed, Annopolis holds its students to a somewhat different standard. Midshipmen have been asked to leave for infractions such as knowing someone cheated on a test but not turning the person in. "There's only one thing that's sure," says Josh Bernoff, a digital-media analyst at Forrester Research. "File-trading will decrease at the Naval Academy and other military academies."
That's a start. But it won't turn the tide against file swappers. Music pirates sailing across university networks still have little reason to raise a white flag. Black covers technology for BusinessWeek Online in New York