• United States
by Ann Harrison

Students pay out in RIAA suit

May 13, 20034 mins

* RIAA wins settlement from students but will the lawsuit silence others?

Four university students who were recently sued by the Recording Industry Association of America for allegedly operating file trading services, have agreed to pay out thousands of dollars to settle the lawsuit. Each student will make annual payments for four years totally between $12,000 and $17,000.

The students agreed in the settlements that in their future Internet use they would not knowingly infringe copyrights owned by the record labels. The RIAA threatened that any continued enforcement action against the students could result in “stiffer settlement obligations.”

The students were prosecuted for running file trading services and network search tools on their campus networks, some of which ran on software they themselves developed. The RIAA also charged that the students shared copyrighted music from their machines.

Faced with an army of industry lawyers eager to make examples of them, the students had little choice but to pay out. They were among the first sacrificial defendants targeted to send a message to other students who dare develop software capable of efficient file exchange. One of the students simply used existing network software for this purpose. None of the students were actually using Kazaa or other more established P2P systems.

Howard Ende, an attorney who represented one of the defendants, Princeton sophomore Daniel Peng, noted that the record companies were eager to settle with his client because they were simply using the legal system “to intimidate Internet users.”

Certainly some school groups are being intimidated by this legal action. Last month, the Naval Academy disciplined 85 students for alleged file sharing. The “Chronicle of Higher Education” reported that the New Jersey Institute of Technology has banned the use of file sharing software on its campus. And Pennsylvania State University has reprimanded a large group of students for using or operating file-trading services.

Students in other countries are also being targeted. Police in Fürth, Germany, recently confiscated six computers owned by a computer science student accused of operating an illegal music-swapping network. Responding to a complaint by the German arm of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), the student will face possible fines or jail time. The student was running an OpenNap server network that extends the Napster protocol to allow sharing of any media files through a series of linked servers. This is the first time a German court will consider the case of a person accused of operating an illegal music swapping service.

Despite the crackdowns, it is interesting to note that none of the students sued by the RIAA admitted any guilt in their settlement negotiations. Some were even defiant. “I don’t believe that I did anything wrong,” said 18-year-old Peng in a statement. “I am glad that the case has been settled amicably, and I hope that, for the sake of artists, the larger issues can soon be resolved.”

Peng noted that his search software, which he was sued for operating, behaved more like the Google search engine because it searched any computer hooked up to the campus network. Peng’s network search services will now provide links to a record industry Web site.

While the RIAA lawsuits will likely continue to inflict harm on students, they could also spark a surge in the development of innovative search and file sharing software from bright young programmers.

Eager to find stealthy workarounds and stick it to an industry that is harassing them, some students will see the legal actions as a challenge. Defying authority, the law and the courts is a very old tradition among bright young people. Anyone who thinks that the threat of lawsuit will bring the development of this software to a standstill underestimates the stubbornness and creativity of 18-year-olds.