University to take new approach to illegal file sharing issues

By Maya Shankar, For the Daily
Published October 1, 2014

Sharing is not always caring.

The University will be more aggressively enforcing illegal file sharing of copy-written files, according to an e-mail sent to students by E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, and Laura Patterson, the chief information officer. File sharing between peers, called “P2P,” is often conducted through file sharing technology, such as BitTorrent.

Alan Levy, IT policy and compliance lead for the University’s Information and Technology Services, has been monitoring illegal activity conducted on the University’s network. He said students will often share copyrighted material such as music, videos, art or books.

Levy said the issue is predominantly with students inadvertently downloading copyrighted material from unauthorized sources and then sharing those files with peers. He said a basic rule of thumb is to remember that if the file being shared is not specifically identified as publically available, the safest thing to do is assume it is copyrighted and investigate further before sharing. The University is alerted to the unauthorized download and will punish students once the files are shared.

Another issue with file sharing sites is that they compromise computer security. A problem with P2P programs is that they may start up when the computer is turned on and accessing the Internet without the user’s knowledge, Levy said. He said this could potentially allow other people to access files from a vulnerable computer without any warning or consent, which can lead to unintentional copyright infringement.

University Internet policy states that users are responsible for file sharing activities of their computer, even if they are unaware of the activity. Therefore, Levy said the safest thing to do is to encourage students to be aware of the contents of their computers so they can avoid legal issues.

The University has a tiered punishment process for students based on the number of copyright infringement complaints a student receives. The first alleged offence results in a notice to cease illegal activity, the final offence results in a formal complaint being filed with the Office of Student Conflict Resolution. Copyright holders may also offer a Pre-litigation Settlement Offer, which would allow the violator to pay a fee in order to avoid being sued by the copyright holder.
Levy said it was important for students to be proactive and take this issue seriously.

“It is important to understand, U of M students have had to deal with the negative results of copyright infringement,” he said. “It is not something that happens (elsewhere), it happens here.”

Levy said Wednesday’s e-mail was not in response to any specific event or even an uptick in illegal activity. Rather, the purpose of the e-mail sent out was to educate students on the risks of P2P file sharing, and emphasize the importance of taking it seriously. There are alternatives to illegal file sharing that are effective and allowed, Levy said, and violating copyright laws is the equivalent of theft of another person’s intellectual property.

“In a University like ours,” he said, “respect for the intellectual property that has been created by other people is a very important fundamental value.”