Campus Web Cops?

The Recording Industry Association of America has sent out waves of letters telling college administrators that some of their students are pirates. No, not the kind played by Johnny Depp, but the kind who visit the seedy back alleys of the Internet to traffic in illegally copied music, movies and software.

The “pre-litigation letters” identify students not by their names, but by their IP addresses, numbers associated with their Internet activity. It is up to the universities, which own the networks, to match the IP addresses with students' names and forward the letters on to the students. The letters offer settlements, reportedly around $3,000, for students to pay along with agreeing to ditch their pirated tracks and live life free of illegal downloading.

In the past, the Recording Industry Association of America has had similar encounters with campuses, but it has sent subpoenas, not letters. While some universities believe that the association is attempting to turn them into copyright cops, this is really just a case of voluntary, private enforcement of intellectual property rights.

Granted, the association cannot enforce its property rights without information from the universities, but this doesn't turn the universities into de facto enforcers for the music industry.

The Recording Industry Association's piracy investigations aren't the only example of private enforcement. Many retail stores employ “secret shoppers,” and private investigators are more than just fixtures on cheesy television shows.

Unlike “Magnum, P.I.,” however, the Recording Industry Association goes in for a hamfisted approach. A notorious example involves the Penn State University Astronomy Department, which received a letter demanding it remove songs by the hip-hop artist Usher from its server.

The server contained no Usher tracks, but it did reference professor emeritus Peter Usher, and it contained MP3s, which attracted the Recording Industry Association's Internet searchbot crew. The MP3s in question were recordings of an a cappella performance by astronomers about a gamma ray satellite.

The Recording Industry Association later apologized for the threatening letter, but this is not the only case of a threat based on automation and incomplete evidence. It's likely that many who receive the latest letters from the association will have downloaded MP3s (audio files) illegally, but that charge might not be supported by the association's “evidence.”

Using threats and offering out-of-court settlements to make up for a lack of evidence may seem like good strategy on “Law & Order,” but in the real world, these tactics resemble an extortion racket. Private enforcement relies on the goodwill of many individuals and organizations. Unfortunately for the Recording Industry Association, its tactics have only antagonized and alienated people.

But universities shouldn't be too quick to spurn the association's request. Forwarding letters demanding thousands of dollars from students may put universities in a public relations pickle. But a California bill banning pretexting, the practice of posing as someone you are not to collect information, may prove to be a larger threat to universities.

In most cases, we do not want individuals posing as people they're not. But it is already illegal to pose as an institution, such as a bank, to snag private data. The new law won't stop these imposters, who are already breaking state and federal laws, but it would stop the Recording Industry Association from exercising its main anti-piracy tactic: posing as pirates.

Association investigators frequently masquerade as criminals to collect evidence against the real bandits of the Internet. Some critics charge that this could ensnare some innocent people, but people who aren't pirating aren't going to be out there to offer up information.

Innovative technologies from entrepreneurs have helped overcome much of the difficulty in protecting the huge volume of copyrighted material on the Internet.

Universities, as purveyors of mounds of copyrighted material and troves of patents, have an interest in protecting intellectual property and should be concerned about this erosion of the ability to privately protect their copyrights. State law enforcement alone, with its already stretched-thin budgets, will make for shoddy intellectual-property-rights enforcement.

So, while universities may not want to stand hand-in-hand with the Recording Industry Association, they should respect its right to defend its members' intellectual property. Now if only the association could work on being a bit nicer.