A pair of state universities in the Pacific Northwest have refused to pass RIAA prelitigation letters along to students over concerns that the IP addresses in the letters can’t easily be mapped to actual users of the computer in question. Just as interesting as the universities’ refusal, though, is the fact that the story is now drawing national attention.
The University of Washington is one of the latest schools on the receiving end of the RIAA letters. Such letters are typically shot off to school administrators along with requests that they be forwarded to the students associated with a listed IP address. The RIAA asserts that the IP addresses in question have be detected swapping illicit material over P2P networks, but colleges and universities have started to raise concerns about linking IP addresses to students. Even in student dorms rooms, it can be hard to know just who is using a computer at any given time.
Based on these concerns, the University of Washington has decided not to pass along the RIAA’s letters until it has a better sense of the students who might be responsible for the alleged file-sharing. UW spokesman Bob Roseth told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “What we want to do is verify that those students were actually (at fault)” before passing on the letters. The message is clear: the University of Washington doesn’t accept the RIAA’s attempt to link IPs to real people as the basis for legal action.
Similar concerns were raised by the University of Oregon back in November; the university objected that IP addresses couldn’t be mapped to students with any certainty even in cases where a computer accessed the university wireless network using a specific user name and password. Without doing interviews and launching an investigation, the school said it had no way of knowing who had committed the alleged copyright infringement.
The Oregon case continues to gain exposure, in part because the state’s attorney general is helping to lead the fight against the RIAA’s subpoenas (issued to schools if they refuse to turn over student information). Writing in Monday’s New York Times, columnist Adam Liptak covered the case and pointed out another school in the state (Portland State) had turned over such information back in 2004, but that it had done so on two roommates since the university couldn’t tell which of their computers had been used. The RIAA tried to get the non-offending student to settle-for $4,500. The girl’s mother told Liptak that the process was “basically extortion.” The lawsuit filed against the girl was later dropped.
Liptak’s own take on the situation is worth quoting because of what it indicates about mainstream reaction to the RIAA’s legal campaign. “No one should shed tears for people who steal music and have to face the consequences,” he wrote. “But it is nonetheless heartening to see a university decline to become the industry’s police officer and instead to defend the privacy of its students.”
The RIAA insists that its campaign is working, but it is certainly coming at a cost; it makes the record labels look thuggish, even to those with who agree that swapping copyrighted songs is wrong.
In any event, the litigation pain train keeps a-rollin’. The RIAA sent out 396 prelitigation letters to 22 universities in December alone, hitting everyone from Western Kentucky to Gustavus Adolphus to USC. Assuming those schools forwarded the letters to students, 396 Christmases were no doubt spent wondering whether to cough up the thousands of dollars to settle the case online (at the wonderfully direct p2plawsuits.com) or risk the expense of a court fight and possible losing outcome.
To students wondering why they’ve been targeted, the RIAA has a simple answer. “The unauthorized uploading or downloading of music is illegal. It is just as wrong as shoplifting from a local record store-and the impact on those who create music and bring it to fans is equally devastating.”
The way out of the mess is equally simple: the group accepts MasterCard, Visa, and Discover; the accused can even put their settlements on a “convenient” monthly payment plan.