What it's like to be targeted by the RIAA

    Back in April, I received an e-mail from Northwestern’s Office of Judicial Affairs informing me that I would need to schedule a meeting with them after they received a complaint from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

    I have received a complaint from the RIAA alleging that you engaged in illegal transmission of copyrighted files. You need to come in and meet with me regarding this complaint. Please call the number contained in my auto-signature below and ask my assistant to put you on my schedule.


    Katy Shannon
    Graduate Assistant for Judicial Affairs

    From the start, it was obvious that Northwestern was taking complaints from the RIAA very seriously. I met with Shannon in her Scott Hall office the next day. She handed me a two-page paper, which was a copy of the complaint e-mail Northwestern received from the RIAA. In what appeared to be a pre-digested response, Jeremy Landis of the RIAA’s Online Copyright Protection Department wrote that they intercepted a transmission of copyrighted work from my IP address: a unique, numerical identifier for a computer on a network.

    The work in question was Amy Winehouse’s Rehab. Below that, the paper showed a list of 30 or so other IP addresses that allegedly uploaded the file via BitTorrent.

    Shannon informed me that my case wasn’t unique. During April alone, the university received 85 complaints against students from the RIAA. The number has grown from the previous year, she said, where the university throughout the entire year received only 160 complaints in total.

    “We’ve called other schools. They aren’t getting as many complaints as us. Someone needs to push back.”

    Last year, only 16 students out of the 160 were contacted at the end of the year by the RIAA. According to Shannon, they received notices that they could either settle out of court for amounts that ranged between $3,000 to $4,000, or hire a lawyer to prepare for a court date. Fifteen of those students settled out of court. Only one student, Shannon said, hired a lawyer, but later backed down and decided to settle. This time, however, the settlement was for “somewhere in the $5,000 to $6,000 range.”

    Shannon worries that Northwestern is being “unfairly targeted” in relation to other schools in the Big Ten. “We’ve called other schools. They aren’t getting as many complaints as us. Someone needs to push back.”

    Wendy Woodward, director of Northwestern’s Technology Support Services, also expressed concern about the increase in the number of RIAA complaints Northwestern has received. “This year, we have seen a substantial increase in the number of reported copyright violations and are working with appropriate University officials to take action to curb any illegal activity that might be occurring,” she said in an e-mail.

    One way to curb illegal activity, the university believes, is by implementing Be Aware You’re Uploading (BAYU), a program already in use at the University of Michigan since late 2007. According to Michigan’s Web site, “BAYU is an automated system that… notifies the person [via e-mail] whose computer was used to upload. The system does not look at the content being uploaded, nor does it look at the content on the computer’s hard drive.”

    I was told by Shannon that Northwestern was spending a “great deal of money” to have the program implemented by the fall of 2008. But after speaking with Woodward, I was told that Northwestern is still only “investigating the launch of a similar program at NU.”

    Currently, Northwestern leverages data sent to and from the university’s network by favoring information that supports the academic mission of the university. “This can be achieved through shaping and throttling resources,” Woodward says, “so that research and instruction efforts are not compromised.” Both Shannon and the University of Michigan’s BAYU Web site claim that BAYU does not stop uploading–it simply notifies the user if it is taking place.

    Regarding my compliant from the RIAA, I recieved a written warning by the Office of Judicial Affairs that instructed me to write a short paragraph on two videos about copyright infringement. Additionally, I was instructed to remove all illegal content and P2P programs from my computer. To this date, I haven’t been contacted by the RIAA with a further penalty. Let’s hope it stays that way.


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