On a recent weekday afternoon, a 19-year-old college freshman named Shawn sat in his dorm room at the University of Southern California and broke the law: He illegally downloaded a copyrighted song off the Internet.
Shawn knows all about the record company lawsuits against those who download without permission -- including more than 500 filed last month -- and ongoing investigations by the Recording Industry Assn. of America into downloading activities. And he doesn't care.
"The lawsuits are a joke," Shawn says. "That doesn't stop me and my friends. It gives us something to joke about. When I'm downloading a song, I'll say, [sarcastically] 'Here I go breaking the law again. Hope I don't get sued.' "
Across town at UCLA, Jessica, a third-year sociology major, has developed a firm rule to avoid getting in trouble: "Don't share files; don't get caught."
That doesn't mean, however, that Jessica has stopped downloading music. Her desktop computer in her dorm is full of songs by Britney Spears and Radiohead, all taken illegally from file-sharing services like Kazaa and Morpheus.
She noticed that the lawsuits focused on Internet users who made their song file libraries available to others and who traded more than 1,000 songs. By making her files inaccessible to other downloaders and by keeping their number well under 1,000, she feels confident she won't get sued.
"I have friends who say I should just buy the CDs," she says. "But I don't have the money."
Shawn and Jessica (their last names, like other students quoted in this story, aren't given to protect their privacy) are just the kind of people who scare the entertainment industry to death. Alarmed at the drop-off in album sales in recent years and at the increasing ease of movie downloading, the music and film industries have been working feverishly to change attitudes about their products, whether it's with lawsuits or advertisements or working with colleges to cut down on downloading.
Is it working? The RIAA says yes, noting that 56% of college students polled last month were supportive of the downloading crackdowns. In an e-mail, Jonathan Lamy, a spokesman for the RIAA, said: "Students are learning both that 'sharing' music on peer-to-peer networks without permission of the copyright holder is illegal and that there are terrific legal alternatives for getting their music online..... This transition won't occur overnight, but we're making real progress."
But recent visits to dorm rooms on the campuses of UCLA and USC revealed a student body more interested in avoiding the authorities than obeying them. Most of the students interviewed continue to download music, movies and TV shows using their universities' high-speed Internet connections unmindful of possible legal action. In their view, it's easy and available, so why not?
"The way I see it, it's only illegal if you get caught," says Shawn, who proudly notes that he shares every song file on his computer.
Students interviewed knew the name of at least one person whom they could turn to for downloading missed TV shows and a student at UCLA showed clips of everything from "Fight Club" to "Finding Nemo," all available from a menu on his computer screen.
Record labels began filing lawsuits last year, beginning with four college students in April, then 261 lawsuits in September and the latest round of 532 suits coming in January.
But instead of acting as a deterrent, the lawsuits have made many college students more savvy of what type of online behavior will get them noticed and what they feel they can get away with. And when one file-sharing service, such as Kazaa, makes headlines, students migrate to a different service, such as Soulseek or LimeWire, to avoid the authorities, USC and UCLA dorm residents say.
"They're only going after the people who download a lot of songs," says Joy, a freshman at USC. "People with 1,000 or more songs on their computer. They don't care about people who only download every once in a while."
Earlier RIAA arguments that stealing music only hurts the artists don't carry much weight among the students: The biggest downloaders also claim to be the biggest music fans. They see themselves on the side of the artist, helping to spread the word on overlooked bands while sticking it to overpaid big-ticket acts.
Shawn has a place of honor on his wall for merchandise from his favorite band, Avenged Sevenfold. He dreams of dropping out of school to start his own hard-core punk band, and the guitar and amp in his room make one wonder if his roommate would like that to happen soon. The bands he downloads, such as Thursday and Thrice, are not found on Billboard's Hot 100 chart, but he says if he likes the album enough, he'll go out and purchase it.
"Small bands like that make all their money from touring and merchandise anyway," he says. "They don't see any money from the sale of their albums. It's only the really big bands who are complaining about that."