• United States
by Ann Harrison

Recording industry sues students

Apr 17, 20033 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsLegal

* Stifling innovation or protecting copyright?

After pressuring universities to bust students for file trading on campus networks, the recording industry has sued four students who ran services that allowed users of internal networks to search for files.

Two students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), and one each at Princeton University and Michigan Technological University are now the target of lawsuits launched by an industry that is eager to make an example of them.

“The people who run these networks know full well what they are doing -operating a sophisticated network designed to enable widespread music thievery,” said RIAA president Cary Sherman, in a statement. “The lawsuits we’ve filed represent an appropriate step given the seriousness of the offense.”

It is true that a lot of bandwidth on university networks is being used to conduct file trading. Schools have tried to block P2P network traffic, and have been quick to cancel the accounts of students who have simply been accused of participating in file trading.

But what makes these lawsuits so interesting is that the RIAA has not gone after users of popular services such as Kazaa. Instead, they are attempting to make criminals out of students who have designed campuswide search software that could be used for a range of applications. They are trying to outlaw technological innovation on a university campus. How ironic.

One of these campus search tools called Flatlan, allows a student to set up a search engine on their PC which queries all the computers on the campus network that have Windows file sharing turned on. This is a clever tool for searching an existing network enabled by Microsoft technology.

Another piece of search software called Phynd is a piece of search engine technology that can be configured to search for a variety of data including Web and FTP sites, as well as local files on a university network.

A third piece of software called Direct Connect links users to a central server in more traditional Napster-style. The tool lets users search each other’s hard drives and download files.

According to the lawsuits, which were filed in a federal court, some of the accused students allegedly had archives of hundreds of music files on their machines. Did the RIAA check to see if these if this music was copyrighted? Evidently it never bothered to contact the students at all prior to lodging the suits. The RIAA contends that the networks were only created for the purpose of copyright infringement, even though they are capable of searching for a wide variety of material.

The RIAA says it doesn’t matter if these students developed new ways of searching for data. If the tool has the capability of locating copyrighted MP3 files, the students are liable. This is an example of the recording industry attempting to strangle innovation to defend its own monopoly.

Fred Von Lohmann, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), says he is most concerned about the suit against the developer of Flatlan. “It does seem like all it’s doing is indexing resources that are available on a network that people are already a part of,” said Lohmann to CNET. “It doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with building a tool to do that. And it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with running that tool.”

The EFF has defended file-trading companies against RIAA legal challenges in the past. Let’s hope it provides some assistance to these students who may well be thrown out of school for the crime of developing a useful search tool.