I was not the least bit surprised last week when I read RIAA cracks down on downloading at 25 colleges. After all, institutions are routinely notified whenever resources residing in their domain are associated with disruptive activity outside of that domain. For that reason, we take substantive measures to protect our network, and any computers residing on our network (including student-owned computers), from threats originating outside our domain.
If you run a robust computing network on a college campus anywhere in the world, your students are constantly being inundated with spam, phishing scams, and various e-mail offers -- some legal, some illegal, and some which -- while legal -- when used indiscriminately can be be unsafe or illegal. For this reason, Institutions have an obligation to their students to advise them of their responsibilities when using institutional services.
Universities routinely have codes of conduct which they expect their students to follow. Violations of those codes usually result in punitive actions against the student including, in the severest cases, suspension or expulsion. These codes of conduct almost always include violation of state and federal law. Why should misuse of the institution's computing network be any different?
While the courts have found that service providers cannot be held responsible for the illegal activity of of their customers, few service providers would tolerate such misuse if that activity compromises the integrity or reliability of their network. Why should colleges and universities?
It is easy for the average college student to dismiss the 'rantings' of the RIAA and to regard their heavy-handed tactics as deserving of whatever fate befalls them but what about their copyright holders? Songwriters own the music that they write and while most are not 'in it for the money' they do deserve compensation for their efforts so they can continue to make music.
Sharing music with your friends is as natural as sharing pizza -- and songwriters and musicians have long understood that passing around copies of music is good for business because it provides exposure to new titles and new talent. But what happens when "sharing music with your friends" includes hundreds of thousands of strangers using the same peer-to-peer networking software? This is the abuse with which the RIAA is justifiably concerned.
Most peer-to-peer vendors have been quick to include on their web sites disclaimers such as:
The use of this software for illegal activities, including uploading or downloading games, movies, music, or software without authorization, is strictly forbidden, and may be subject to civil and/or criminal penalties.
Unfortunately, these statements usually appear in small print somewhere below the big DOWNLOAD NOW button -- which always appears somewhere near that magic word -- FREE.
This is where indiscriminate use of otherwise legal services gets your students (and your institution) into trouble. While the software being associated with the disclaimer above can be used legally, the people distributing that software know damned good and well that it is being used illegally. With few exceptions, it is clearly marketed to college students for one purpose, to redistribute copyrighted music.
The fact that college students use this software may be an indication of their naivety or their disdain for a recording industry which shares pennies-on-the-dollar with the the writers of that music. Or worse, it may simply be your students blatant disregard for the law. In any event, our institutions set an example for our students and their disregard for the law should not be met by our choosing to ignore their conduct while on our campuses or while using our computing resources.
No, it is not our responsibility to "police" them but it is our responsibility to advise them of their responsibilities and it is our responsibility to investiage when we have reason to believe that their behavior has violated the code of conduct we have set for them as students at our institutions.
The fact that, when left unfettered, these file-sharing tools (when used for theft of music or movies) can bring your institution's network to a crawl -- hampering your institution's academic mission -- just drives home the importance of a comprehensive computer user's rights and responsibilities document at your institution.