WASHINGTON – With their high-speed Internet connections and large numbers of technologically inclined users, college campuses are often hubs for illegal peer-to-peer (p2p) sharing of copyrighted files through programs like Kazaa and Morpheus.
But even as universities see their Internet capacity chewed up by such software, they remain hesitant to take strong measures to deal with the problem, since not all of the downloads are illegal.
Their response has been to limit capacity for downloads but not to police what is being downloaded or to go after users, unless prodded from the outside.
"Colleges are caught up in illegal downloading, which costs the entertainment industry hundreds of millions of dollars a year," said Hilary Rosen, chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), in testimony last month to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property.
Many of the songs and movies traded through "p2p" networks are copyrighted, making their distribution illegal. But peer-to-peer file sharing lets users trade files from each others' computers without routing through a central server, making it almost impossible to stop.
Rosen's association estimates that 2.6 billion files are downloaded illegally each month.
But colleges and universities say that there are legal uses for peer-to-peer file sharing and good reasons to use such networks.
"There are some legitimate uses for peer-to-peer file sharing, and that's why we have taken the approach of limiting the amount of it that can go on at one time, as opposed to blocking it altogether," said Joan Martinez, a spokeswoman for the University of Maryland, College Park.
Barbara Jarc, the network manager at Mount St. Mary's College and Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., cited one researcher who used Napster when working on the Human Genome Project, using the program to share data with colleagues around the world.
"Besides, not all music files are illegal," said Billie Dodge, director of information technologies at Washington College. "Some free Web sites, like mp3.com, carry files that can be traded without restrictions."
"Peer-to-peer is still in its infancy," and still has much potential, said Pennsylvania State University President Graham Spanier, testifying at the same hearing as Rosen. "We're concerned that we not throw the baby out with the bath water."
So entertainment industry associations, like the RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America, have taken it upon themselves to track some downloading of copyrighted files. When they detect illegal activity, the organizations send letters detailing the breach to schools.
When administrators at the College Park campus get a letter, they tell the student in question to delete the illegal files from his computer, said Amy Ginther, in the school's Office of Information Technology.
"If they do that within a 24-hour period, then that's the extent of the contact," Ginther said.
In "under 25 percent" of those cases, the university has to deny a student's Internet access to get their attention, Martinez said. Once the illegal files are deleted, access is restored.
Tracking down the offending students can be time-consuming for colleges, said Washington College network engineer Cal Coursey. The industry letters provide some identifying information, but not the specific student.
"Each [violation] required a significant amount of time" to track down and identify, Coursey said. "It was very labor intensive."
But students have not always responded quickly, said Sheldon Steinbach, a vice president at the American Council on Education.
"When people grow up in a culture where this is all acceptable and applauded, it takes a lot to change behavior," Steinbach said. "It's been cool since junior high."
Despite preliminary steps to curtail illegal file sharing on college campuses, entertainment industry executives remain concerned about pirating on campuses. The industry has not ruled out a more aggressive policy, like suing individual file sharers, Rosen testified.
"Right now, nothing's off the table," Rosen said.