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Downloading Files Illegally?

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Beware: Settlement fees run $3,000 to $5,000

The letter arrives from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) with an ominous message:

"We have gathered evidence that you have been infringing copyrights owned by the Record Companies via the GnutellaUS (LimeWire) peer-to-peer network. If you contact us within the next twenty (20) calendar days, we will offer to settle the claims for a significantly reduced amount compared to what we will offer to settle them for after we file suit or compared to the judgment amount a court may enter against you."

Copyright Violation Warning Notices Received by Dartmouth Students, Faculty, and Staff (by month) (Source: computing services)

For six Dartmouth students this potential nightmare became a harsh reality only a few weeks into the fall term. Dozens more will likely face the same predicament before summer. In fact, from March 2007 to October 2008, 79 students were forwarded early settlement letters from the entertainment industry demanding that they pay fees for illegally sharing movies, music, or television shows. The average cost was between $3,000 and $5,000.

These letters represent only the tip of the copyright-violation iceberg. In the 2007-08 academic year, the College received 759 copyright-violation warning notices-a 140 percent increase from the previous year. Thirty-eight of the violators were faculty and staff, the rest were students. Although recipients almost always stop after the first notice, the RIAA has been increasingly foregoing warnings and going straight to early settlement letters.

"Many people think they're anonymous when they go on the Web," says Ellen Young, manager of consulting services for Computing Services. "But as their internet service provider (ISP), our logs identifying the users are subject to subpoena by the RIAA or other entertainment industry organizations. And if we receive a valid subpoena, we have to comply."

"I've had many parents call me who are very upset," Young continues. "Some ask: 'How are we supposed to pay the settlement and tuition as well?'"

Unfortunately, they may not have many options.

"As revenues from legal sales continue to fall, we're seeing the entertainment industry lawyers move much more aggressively to protect their clients' intellectual property rights," says General Counsel Robert Donin.

He also notes that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act requires colleges to take action to stop infringement when they receive a notice or early settlement letter.

"Students often don't recognize the legal risk when they share copyright-protected materials," Donin says. "We're working with several groups on campus to bring these issues to the fore."

Sharing files and don't even know it?

Occasionally people aren't aware that the file-sharing software they put on their machines runs in the background whenever the machine is on.

"File-sharing software can allow others to upload files from your computer without your knowledge, which is just as illegal as downloading files to your computer," Young says.

Anyone who is unsure if their computer has file sharing software on it should contact the IT Service Desk for help removing the software (and/or illegal files) from their machines.


Learn more about copyright.


Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08