An ulterior motive in the music biz's college fight?

Colleges report receiving lots of copyright infringement complaints aimed at students.

By Farhad Manjoo
May 6, 2008 9:40PM (UTC)
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Inside Higher Ed reports that colleges have recently been receiving a huge number of complaints from the music business regarding students' trading of copyrighted songs.

The recording industry has long sent legal letters to campuses when it suspects that a student might trading music, but there's been a sudden surge of such letters -- a mysterious surge, considering that network managers at the colleges have not seen any increase in the volume of songs being traded.


So why is the music business sending more letters?

Inside Higher Ed cites college officials who suspect that "the recording industry has altered the standards it uses to allege illegal behavior." Rather than targeting only the students who trade songs, the industry is also going after students who "have stored downloaded music in a folder visible to other users, opening the way to a potential violation."

This is a familiar music industry claim -- the "making available" offense. In several court cases, officials have argued that that I should be punished not only for giving you a copyrighted song, but also for putting a song in a place where you might take it. I should be punished, the industry says, even if you didn't take the song.


Courts have been split on this theory -- some judges have sided with the industry, while others gone with the argument put forward by the likes of the Electronic Frontier Foundation: By itself, putting a song in a certain folder of your computer doesn't harm anyone. To exact legal retribution, shouldn't copyright owners have to prove, at least, that someone has copied something illegally?

Fortunately, reports Inside Higher Ed, some colleges are getting wise to these distinctions, and are beginning to throw out copyright complaints that simply complain of possible -- rather than actual -- infringement.

College officials have another theory about the surge in complaint letters -- they wonder if the industry is preparing to take its numbers to Congress as evidence of rampant copying at universities, in the hopes of persuading members to pass some sort of punitive legislation.


The Recording Industry Association of America denies any such motive. Cary Sherman, RIAA president, told Inside Higher Ed that the rise in copyright complaints is due mainly to improvements in its capacity to detect infringement.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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