RIAA Urges Downloaders to Turn Themselves In

    COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The Recording Industry Association of America has an idea for university students who illegally download music: Sign a letter admitting their mistakes, make a plea-bargain with the multi-million dollar industry, then pay them an out-of-court settlement.

    Then maybe – just maybe – the college student will be lucky enough to avoid a lawsuit.

    In a new plan targeting college students, the RIAA said last week that lawyers had sent out 400 settlement offers to students through 13 universities across the country demanding settlement money for illegally downloaded copyright material. The strategy signals an audacious and unprecedented approach by the industry to crack down on college students that could soon envelop students across the nation.

    “”There isn’t a college student in America today who doesn’t know that the online ‘sharing’ of copyrighted music is illegal,”” said RIAA President Cary Sherman in a recorded online news conference with college newspapers. “”Yet, file-trafficking on college campuses remains extensive and disproportionately problematic.””

    Sherman said the letters don’t target any specific universities – only students identified as prolific file-sharers.

    Ohio University appeared to get the worst of the RIAA’s ire this time around – 50 students there were asked to visit the RIAA Web site and pay thousands of dollars to settle threats of impending lawsuits.

    RIAA lawyers targeted the top 13 universities who have received the most cease and desist warnings – “”nastygrams,”” as some critics call them – ordering universities to shut down file-sharing hubs and warn students to stop downloading copyright material, according to documents provided by the association.

    Typical copyright law provides for statutory damages ranging from $750 to $150,000 per work infringed, and RIAA General Counsel Steven Marks said the latest effort will likely rope in a record-high number of students.

    “”In the three years since we first filed suit against a university network user, we have sued about 1,000 students,”” Marks said. “”Under this new program, we will initiate legal action against a similar number of students in just three months.””

    Sherman said the RIAA will only send the letters to the university, which it hopes will transfer the letters to the students. At this university, officials have already taken significant steps to placate the RIAA, including revising network guidelines that effectively shut down file-sharing hub Direct Connect last semester, commonly known as DC++, if only temporarily.

    But Office of Information Technology officials said last semester they would not defend students sued by the RIAA because it would conflict with the university’s policy against file sharing, which they said is consistent with the law. OIT officials did not return calls for comment on this story.

    Marks warned that unlike lawsuits three years ago, the RIAA no longer targets only the most “”egregious infringers”” who store and share thousands of copyright files.

    “”Today we do not have any minimum amount of files in order to move forward with a lawsuit,”” Marks said. “”Students should understand that they are not anonymous when they use P2P services.””

    Blogs and other student sites have blasted the RIAA’s new policy, calling it extortion and saying it will trick some students from seeking out more viable alternatives to the settlement. The university’s Student Legal Aid Office could not be reached for comment, but in the past it has said it can only refer students to an outside attorney.

    “”Frankly, we’ve found that students know that downloading from unauthorized P2P systems is illegal, but the chance of getting caught isn’t great enough to discourage them from doing it,”” Sherman said. “”By increasing the number of lawsuits, we’re letting them know that the risk of getting caught is greater. That’s also why we’re bringing more lawsuits on a single college campus.””

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