The major record companies intensified their attack on piracy Thursday, suing four students at three universities who allegedly operated Napster-like music-copying services on their campuses' computer networks.
The students -- one at Princeton University, one at Michigan Technological University and two at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute -- each could be ordered to pay tens of millions of dollars in damages if a court finds that they operated the services and redistributed copyrighted music.
The lawsuits are a new punitive tactic for the Recording Industry Assn. of America, which had relied on campus officials to stop piracy by students.
"The seriousness of this problem requires us to act quickly and send a loud and clear message that this kind of activity is illegal and has consequences," RIAA President Cary Sherman said.
Several academic officials faulted RIAA for not working through the three universities to address the problem instead of filing headline-grabbing suits.
"Had you followed the previous methods established in notification of a violation, we would have shut off the student and not allowed the problem to grow to the size and scope that it is today," Michigan Tech President Curtis J. Tompkins said in a letter to Sherman. "As a fully cooperating site, we would have expected the courtesy of being notified early and allowing us to take action following established procedures, instead of allowing it to get to the point of lawsuits and publicity."
An RIAA official who asked not to be named said, "We cannot live in a world where people infringe until they're told to stop."
The lawsuits are the latest signal of the labels' increasingly aggressive tactics against individuals who use file-sharing networks. The labels' efforts have been slowed down by a legal battle over their use of subpoenas to force Internet providers to identify customers who use file-sharing networks.
Court and university records identify the defendants in the suits filed Thursday as Daniel Peng, a sophomore at Princeton in Princeton, N.J.; Joseph Nievelt, an undergraduate computer science student at Michigan Tech in Houghton, Mich.; Jesse Jordan, a freshman information-technology student at RPI in Troy, N.Y.; and Aaron Sherman, a senior management student at RPI. Peng declined to comment. The others didn't respond to requests for comment.
The suits accuse the four of hijacking their campuses' computer networks to make it easier for fellow students to copy and redistribute copyrighted songs. Each allegedly set up a site on the network that, like the defunct service from Napster Inc. of Redwood City, Calif., indirectly infringed copyrights by providing a computerized index of songs stored on one another's computers.
All four also are accused of violating copyrights by distributing copies of hundreds of songs to other students. The suits ask for the maximum damages of $150,000 for each infringement.
John Vaughn, executive vice president of the America Assn. of Universities, said the lawsuits reflect RIAA's concerns that universities don't have an incentive to crack down on systems used to copy files within their campus networks. That's because these systems, in effect, reduce the traffic on the expensive lines that connect a campus network to the global Internet; popular file-sharing services such as Kazaa make heavy use of the lines.
"I think the industry has gotten tired with what they perceive as the lax attitude of institutions in dealing with downloading of motion pictures and CDs," said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, another higher-education trade group. "They have decided to take the strongest possible action they can."