MP3 crackdown

As the recording industry "educates" universities about digital music piracy, students feel the heat.

Published November 17, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

The Recording Industry Association of America has been busy, busy, busy lately. Thanks to its recent letter-writing campaign to "educate" universities about the dangers of illegal MP3s, a lot of students are finding that their beloved collections of ripped tunes are disappearing into the ether.

Carnegie Mellon University, for example, recently disciplined 71 college students, after an RIAA-prompted search revealed that they were swapping illegal files on the campus intranet. (Their punishment? Revoked Net access privileges and assignments to write essays about copyright issues.) And at the University of South Carolina at Spartanburg, a student who was pirating MP3s was threatened with a lawsuit by the RIAA.

And to top it all off, the RIAA this week slapped an MP3 search engine called Napster with a lawsuit, claiming that Napster contributes to piracy by letting users swap file libraries with each other. Never mind the fact that many of the songs that people are swapping might be legal.

The RIAA has, of course, always had a vendetta against "pirates" -- although rarely has it organized such concentrated attacks against them. The sudden flurry of attention likely stems from a judgment this summer against a University of Oregon student, who was found guilty of trafficking in thousands of pirated MP3 files, plus movies and software -- giving the RIAA legal teeth for its threats. According to a report in the New York Times, the RIAA has since sent notices to over 300 colleges, warning them that students were hosting illegal MP3 files on university servers and explaining the legal consequences. Last month, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry announced a similar campaign worldwide.

And the recording industry isn't alone in examining the file libraries of individuals. The Business Software Alliance recently targeted the IRC channel "warez4cable," and filed suits against 25 members who were swapping illegal software -- an unusual step for an organization that typically goes after companies, rather than busting down the doors of individuals. If they lose the suit, the defendants will have to pay up to $100,000 for each software application they swapped.

Not surprisingly, the actions have warez and MP3 fans in a tizzy, and on bulletin boards like Slashdot college students and civil rights advocates alike are participating in some serious RIAA-bashing. But beyond their disgust for the RIAA's anti-MP3 scare tactics, there's not too much that they can complain about: While ripping yourself an MP3 copy of a CD you've purchased for personal use is perfectly legal, it is illegal to share that file with anyone else.

In targeting the universities, the RIAA might well staunch much of the flow of pirated MP3s -- the majority of pirated music is currently traded on university servers. Still, there are a lot of other servers out there for the taking; as long as it costs $17 for a CD and you can't even get it in digital format, it's likely that fans will find a way to trade files illegally. And there are probably millions of illegal MP3 files and music traders online -- pity the poor fool whose job is to try to track them all down.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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