There is finally a glimmer of hope for all students who willingly – or unwittingly – upload files using University computers. Effective last Tuesday, the University has initiated Be Aware You’re Uploading, a new automated system that notifies students via e-mail if they are uploading files using peer-to-peer programs such as Kazaa, Limewire or Freenet. Until now, students have struggled to protect themselves from the Recording Industry Association of America’s legal aggressions armed with only a vague understanding of the laws they’re breaking. With the RIAA’s continuing efforts to target unsuspecting students, however, education alone won’t be enough: It’s time to challenge the outdated and poorly defined laws that are used to punish online file sharing.
To avoid court battles, the RIAA specifically targets college students, even going so far as to hand out subpoenas during exams, when students are too overworked to investigate their options. The RIAA doesn’t serve the subpoenas to students itself; it instead gives universities guilty IP addresses and has them track the perpetrators. The University chooses to serve these subpoenas, allowing many students to settle out of court. Settlements with students tend to run around $4,000, while taking the case to court increases settlement figures.
Because of the additional revenue that comes without a court battle attached, the RIAA has no incentive to actually push these cases into court and thereby encourage the development of more responsive copyright infringement laws. As a result, students will continue to be prosecuted for a largely undefined crime.
According to the University, the new BAYU system was designed to accomplish three goals: to help students avoid uploading unknowingly, to help students who choose to upload do so legally and to educate students of the risks involved in using peer-to-peer technology. BAYU is not only a sign that the University cares about its students but is also a crucial tool in protecting students from being exploited by the RIAA in the future. However, the definition of specific copyright laws addressing the issue of file-sharing would help students even more by clearing up misunderstandings about what’s legal and what’s not.
In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., in which it ruled that it was legal for a person to record television programs for individual use. In 2005, the Supreme Court decided in MGM Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. that companies that create programs that promote illegal file-sharing are liable for the violations committed by users. However, that precedent is easily avoided by companies that simply insert a warning before a copyrighted file can be downloaded. Although both of these decisions were useful in modernizing copyright laws stemming from the broad Copyright Act of 1976, they cannot be applied to the current issues with uploading and file-sharing, necessitating that the courts revisit them and make their specific applications more clear.
For now, the companies that make file-sharing programs, not people who occasionally use them, should be held accountable for illegal file-sharing, in accordance with Supreme Court precedent. But until copyright laws are fully developed, users can only avoid prosecution through education, something that BAYU will be effective in providing to the University community.