PHILADELPHIA – The University of Pennsylvania’s Office of Information Security was one of an unknown number of universities across the nation to receive an abundance of complaints from Universal Studios in the last week regarding students who were illegally sharing movie files.
Penn received 100 allegations of misuse of copyright material. This reflects an upward surge from an average of five to 10 complaints that the University typically receives from media companies each week, according to University Information Security Officer David Millar.
Millar said that his office has contacted the owners of the offending machines and referred the cases to the Office of Student Conduct.
“Students, generally speaking, are contacted, told of the complaint, informed about copyright law and the vulnerability that they are exposed to if they are found in violation and asked to cease the activity and correct the problem,” Office of Student Conduct Director Michele Goldfarb said. “Ordinarily, that’s the end of the matter.”
More serious cases, such as repeat offenses by the same users, can result in more comprehensive follow-ups by the OSC.
According to Millar, machines from which files are being shared have been linked to both students and faculty on Penn’s campus.
In addition to Penn, Universal Studios also sent a large volume of complaints to a number of other colleges, including Michigan State University, which received 500 complaints, Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, according to Wisconsin technology official Brian Rust.
The University of Maryland at College Park received a large volume of complaints from Universal as well.
According to Rust, movie and music companies obtain users’ IP addresses — which serve to identify computers — by searching the databases that people use to download movies and music.
An IP address can also be used to obtain the e-mail address of the computer’s user as well as its location. As a result, production companies are able to track who is sharing files and cite them for copyright violations.
Technically, merely possessing a copyrighted file is illegal in itself.
“By downloading the movie, you’re basically engaging in obtaining stolen property,” Rust said.
The copyright law that Universal Studios claims students are violating states “that you need to have express permission to be able to copy, use or transfer to another medium… material that is copyrighted,” according to Rust.
However, only transgressors on the distribution end of the file sharing process have been implicated up until now.
Millar said that while many users knowingly allow their files to be shared, some have no knowledge that their files are available to others.
“Sometimes, it’s intentional sharing of files,” Millar said. “Sometimes, some of these machines have been hacked.”
This discrepancy has led to difficulties for officials required to reprimand and punish offending users.
University of Delaware sophomore Patrick Riley received an email last semester from Warner Brothers claiming that he had been distributing hundreds of copies of the movie “Austin Powers in Goldmember” across the world.
The company contacted the University of Delaware as well, and then left the issue of disciplinary action up to the school’s officials.
“I was shocked,” Riley said. “At first, I was really scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
The university simply instructed him to stop sharing his files — something that he claimed was unintentional in the first place — and also threatened to take away his Internet access for a year or for the remainder of his time at the school if he refused. Warner Brothers itself did not pursue the situation further.
This seems to be the typical course of action for students across the nation found in violation of these types of copyright laws.
In the case of Universal Studios, Rust said, the company does not hold colleges and universities responsible for its students offenses. However, the company does expect the universities it contacts to then relay the complaint to the offending students.
“The schools really are just passing the word along to their users,” Rust said.
The commonality of file sharing and media companies’ current high level of response has led to increased concerned at some universities.
“We are considering our practices and consulting with our legal staff for what to do,” said Amy Ginther, coordinator of Maryland’s NEThics Project.
She noted that Maryland has been in the practice of limiting the amount of bandwidth that can be devoted to peer-to-peer sharing and will continue to do so.
“We have not talked about any more extensive prevention,” she said, adding that Maryland has not yet contacted the list of offenders that were reported by Universal Studios last week.
Other universities are working on ways to inhibit copyright infringement. Some have implemented firewalls, which prohibit the downloading of any files.
Penn does not have a firewall because, Millar noted, “It blocks legitimate use of the network.”
“When you’re talking about an institution of higher education, you have to give people access to any content that can be used for educational purposes,” Rust said.
So what does the future hold?
“I think all intellectual property owners are making more and more efforts to protect their content,” Millar said.
“This is probably just the beginning,” Rust agreed.
Any regulatory changes could have serious implications for the countless number of students who download files. But at Penn and elsewhere, students disagree about whether media companies are justified in their concerns.
College sophomore Erika Klingensmith said that she believes production companies shouldn’t be concerned with losing money through illegal downloading.
“If I download a song and like it enough, I’m going to buy the CD anyway,” she said.
Engineering freshman Scott Ferguson disagreed, saying that Universal Studios was “probably right” in taking action against offenders.
Still, Ferguson, who shares files that he downloads from www.kazaa.com, noted that he was a little worried about the increase in concern from production companies and thought that their actions might affect his downloading behavior.