The independent news organization of Duke University

Use protection!

In May, the Recording Industry Association of America sent 28 subpoenas to the Office of Information Technology, seeking personal information on students whose computers were monitored distributing allegedly copyrighted material on peer-to-peer file-sharing systems.

Over the summer, in stages, the Office of Legal Counsel complied.

It first relayed "prelitigation notices" to the 12 students identified in the University's logs as the owners of the computers whose IP addresses were identified in the subpoenas. The students were given the option of paying an out-of-court settlement of approximately $3,000 or spending potentially much more defending themselves against a civil copyright infringement suit. Six students chose to reveal themselves to the RIAA and settled.

Several months later, the counsel's office revealed the names and other personal identifying information of the six who refused to settle, subjecting them to litigation and effectively throwing them under a very large bus driven by a very drunk driver.

These actions are extremely problematic for several reasons:

The RIAA and its Hollywood counterpart, the Motion Picture Association of America, use automated programs to scour the Internet for material that might be copyrighted by those they represent. These programs have initiated legal threats after erroneously flagging free software, academic papers and other items that happen to be contained in files named similarly to any one of tens of thousands of song titles, band names, movie titles and television series claimed as copyrighted by the entertainment industry.

If the programs find a truly offending file, there is still no guarantee that the computer IP address submitted to the University corresponds in the University's logs to the name of the person actually responsible for it. Adept users can subsume an address from another person, guests can use computers tied to registered users and viruses can take over computers to distribute copyrighted material without the knowledge of the owner. Last week, the University of Oregon refused to comply with 17 subpoenas because there was no way to verify "whether the content was accessed by the individual assigned that user name or by someone else using the computer associated with the user name," according to Dale Smith, Oregon's director of network services.

And even if said user(s) distributed said copyrighted work(s), there are numerous questions surrounding the illegality of sharing material online, the legality of the RIAA's enforcement efforts and universities' responsibility to protect students' privacy rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

In response to those concerns, Harvard law professor Charles Nesson wrote in The Harvard Crimson in May: "We should be assisting our students both by explaining the law and by resisting the subpoenas that the RIAA serves upon us. We should be deploying our clinical legal student training programs to defend our targeted students. We should be lobbying Congress for a roll back of the draconian copyright law that the copyright industry has forced upon us."

One would hope that such concerns would encourage Duke to at least try to protect its students-the same way Verizon protects its users, who pay as little as $14.99 a month, by going to court to quash subpoenas and refusing to pass on litigation threats to users. Resistance from Harvard Law School faculty and Harvard Information Technology resulted in the RIAA avoiding Harvard students in its latest round of subpoenas and legal threats, which targeted the 35 students at Duke and students at 22 other schools.

Instead, the administration favored a dubious "responsibility to teach the ethical use of intellectual property," according to an article in The Herald-Sun.

That "responsibility" has extended not only to serving RIAA and MPAA subpoenas, but also to internally punishing students on the basis of the same dubious computer-generated cease-and-desist and prelitigation letters. In the 2006-2007 school year, 22 students were adjudicated for violations of the "Computing and Electronic Communications" policy governing copyright infringement, a marked increase from the one student adjudicated the previous year.

As is the case with indiscretions by Durham police officers and Alcohol Law Enforcement agents, Judicial Affairs acts outside of the legal system to punish us on the basis of nonsubstantive or questionable information. At the same time, we are left to protect ourselves from undue legal action.

One way we can is with PeerGuardian (Google it), a freely available program that blocks the set of Internet addresses tied to the recording industry and the motion picture industry. It prevents automated computer systems from probing what files may be available, legally or illegally and with or without your knowledge, from a computer tied to you in the University's logs.

But most importantly, it prevents the entertainment industry, with the complicity of the University, from railroading you for something you did or didn't do, that may or may not be perfectly legal.

As Student Health constantly reminds us, use protection.

Elliott Wolf is a Trinity senior. His column runs every Thursday.


Share and discuss “Use protection!” on social media.