Illegally downloading Britney Spears's new single may cost some students more than ridicule this semester?$750, to be exact.
Eleven members of the Bowdoin community were served with pre-litigation letters earlier this month for infringing on the rights of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) by illegally uploading or downloading music files over online peer-to-peer (p2p) networks.
The letters offer the alleged offender the option to settle the claim that he illegally shared files for a reduced amount, or risk having a lawsuit filed against him by the major music labels.
According to the letter, those who decide not to settle may face a minimum $750 fine in court for each file that has been illegally shared, amounting to possible damages costing thousands of dollars. In October, Jammie Thomas of Duluth, Minn., the first offender to lose her case in court, was fined $220,000 for sharing music illegally over the p2p network, Kazaa.
A spokesperson from the RIAA told the Orient that offenders who opt to settle their cases in the preliminary stage generally face fines of about $3,000 to $5,000.
Bowdoin is one of 18 colleges nationwide to be affected by the RIAA's 12th wave of pre-litigation letters. The letters, which were served on January 9, were sent to the College with the request that it deliver them to the alleged offenders.
"The RIAA sends the letters to the College because they do not know the identity of the individual but they do have very specific information concerning date, time, IP [Internet Protocol] and port address of the supposed offender that makes it very easy to find them," said Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster.
"The College is not a party to this action," Foster added. "Bowdoin has not been sued by the Recording Industry of America."
The move toward litigation to crackdown on the illegal sharing of music is a relatively new phenomenon, with the recording industry's first mass lawsuits filed in September 2003. Before then, the recording industry worked with colleges to prevent internet piracy instead of resorting to litigation.
"Normally, we'd receive a letter saying, 'Someone is doing something wrong, can you stop them?'" said Chief Information Officer Mitch Davis. When that would happen, Davis said he would meet with student groups to warn them against illegal downloading.
"I was surprised how few students really understood what they were doing was really that wrong," he said.
However, with the recording industry relying on a quickly growing number of lawsuits, such an informal deterrence policy no longer seems appropriate.
"The stakes have been raised," Davis said.
In addition to facing potential fines for copyright infringement, offenders at Bowdoin may also receive disciplinary action from the College for violating Internet policies laid out in the Student Handbook. Possible consequences include referral to the Judicial Board (J-Board) or the pressing of civil or criminal charges by the College.
According to an August 2007 RIAA press release, its deterrence programs are primarily aimed at students because a recent survey found that more than half of college students nationwide download music and movies illegally. However, of the 11 pre-litigation letters sent to Bowdoin, it is possible that some went to faculty or staff members as well as to students.
"We don't identify the people to protect their identity/privacy," Foster wrote in an e-mail.
A Bowdoin student who downloads music illegally but did not receive a pre-litigation letter agreed to comment on the issue anonymously.
"[These lawsuits] only make a very small dent, if that, at curbing illegal downloading of music," the student said. "Rather, they are scare tactics made to scare people like me away from doing it. It works at least for some time."
The student reportedly exercises precautions to keep from getting caught when downloading music illegally, such as downloading music from others but not sharing music in return.
"Call me selfish, but it's one of the easiest things you can do [to protect yourself]. Also, another very easy step to take is not to use a peer-to-peer program. If you use Limewire, Ares, or any other p2p program specifically designed for the sharing of files to download music illegally, you are basically inviting the recording industry to come find you," the student said.
Although some students continue to share files illegally without getting caught, Davis said that students should try to "stay away from doing this."
"Is the goal not to get caught, or to do what's right?" he said.