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Big Ban on Campus

As Hollywood and the record industry take legal action to halt illegal downloads, colleges are tightening rules and warning their students

August 30, 2003|Jon Healey and Jeff Leeds | Times Staff Writers

On Sunday, 1,200 incoming Yale University students will listen to a half-hour lecture outlining all the things they can do with the school's formidable computer network.

That will be followed by another half-hour presentation about what they shouldn't do online -- in particular, downloading free movies and music.

Pressured by Hollywood and the record industry, colleges and universities across the country are welcoming students this month with warnings against pirating. Schools also are slapping tighter restrictions on the use of campus Internet connections.

"Before, people were in kind of a fantasyland," said H. Morrow Long, director of security for Yale's computer network. "They didn't think the Internet had anything to do with the law. They thought it was a law-free zone. Now I think some of them are aware, and we're trying to make them seriously aware."

Campus administrators are responding to both external and internal forces.

Record company executives have served several campuses with subpoenas seeking the identities of students who allegedly have bootlegged songs online, earning the schools unwanted publicity. At the same time, campus computer networks are clogged by students making free copies of music, films and software.

College students have been among the most enthusiastic users of file-sharing systems such as Kazaa, which people use to copy millions of audio and video files stored on computers around the world. Many college networks are 10 to 100 times faster than the speediest home Internet connection, making it far easier for students to download large media files.

Entertainment companies have responded with an intense effort to root out campus piracy and pressed college leaders to do more.

Administrators at UC Berkeley, for instance, say they have been overwhelmed by letters from entertainment companies demanding that their works be removed from the campus network. Berkeley received 163 notices last year, up from just 10 two years earlier.

So now schools are cracking down. At Berkeley, a student who wants a free Internet connection in his dorm room must attend an orientation session that includes a warning about the legal troubles file swapping can bring.

Such warnings have a new edge this semester. Instead of speaking about hypothetical situations, Yale's Long said he would be telling students about the four students -- at Princeton University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Michigan Technological University -- sued in April by the record industry.

Each of the four paid $12,000 to $17,500 to settle claims that they violated music copyrights by offering songs on campus file-sharing networks.

But how many students listen to finger-waving lectures about anything?

For students who live on campus and need Berkeley's connection, the warnings of disabling Internet access are "definitely a credible threat," said Sarthak Shah, a 20-year-old senior and economics major. But for the most part, "the basic take from my peers is that no one is really scared legally to download music, movies or burn CDs. On campus, people won't download files because of the credible threat, but they'll end up doing it through other means."

Jeanne Smythe, director for computing policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that some students ignore the variety of warnings UNC provides about piracy but that "very, very few" are repeat offenders. "They know if they do it again they're going to get in trouble," she said, adding that the possible penalties include expulsion.

Colleges have been targeted for lawsuits too. In April 2000, the heavy-metal band Metallica sued Yale, USC and Indiana University for enabling students to copy songs through the Napster file-sharing service. All three quickly satisfied the band by blocking students' access to Napster.

Last October, representatives of the music and movie industries sent letters to 2,300 college and university presidents, urging them to police their networks and educate students about the legal risks of violating copyright. They also joined top administrators from five universities in a task force to discuss ways to address piracy.

Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel of the American Council on Education and a member of the task force's staff, said it had been "patently clear" to schools for almost a year that the "massive downloading" of movies and music can impede students and faculty in using their networks for academics. But changing students' behavior, he said, is unlikely to be easy.

"We have to reverse probably close to a decade of home downloading to the applause of peers and the tacit approval of parents. It takes some effort. You can't simply say, 'Well, what you've been doing for the past decade is wrong.' You have to explain."

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