Getting the sack, over MP3s

Increasingly, companies are casting a wider Net, adding clauses that ban the download or storage of copyright material such as MP3s.
Written by Evan Hansen, Contributor
MP3s may be hazardous to your career.

Carla Tomino, a secretary at NorthWestern University in Evanston, Ill, says she was fired July 23 amid accusations that she had stockpiled some 2,000 music files on her work computer in violation of a policy that bars personal use of company resources.

Such policies are frequently overlooked for such things as email and phone use, but Tomino said a human resources officer explained that the volume of material found on the computer had triggered the termination.

The files were discovered during computer maintenance, Tomino said, after her computer froze. Tomino said she had copied many of the files from CDs she had purchased, but that NorthWestern nevertheless contends some of the files may have been pirated. At the time she was fired, Tomino said, she was told that the school had been contacted by former Beatle George Harrison’s music company in regard to alleged unauthorized works in her MP3 collection.

Tomino’s attorney, Alan Barinholtz, said his client “is meeting with university officials in an effort to resolve this matter”.

A school spokesman said the university does not comment on staff terminations.

The firing comes at a time when employers are increasingly drafting and enforcing detailed policies governing the use of corporate computer systems, according to legal experts. Pornography has gained much of the attention, with high-profile firings over inappropriate content found on employee computers at companies including The New York Times Co.

Increasingly companies are casting a wider Net, adding clauses that ban the download or storage of copyright material such as MP3s, according to Margaret Hart Edwards, a partner at law firm Littler Mendelson in San Francisco.

“More and more employers are adopting rather elaborate written policies regarding Internet and email usage,” she said. “There can be tremendous potential liability if they don’t properly regulate those things. When I hear a woman was fired for storing 2,000 MP3 files on her computer, I’m not surprised.”

In another recent case over alleged misuse of an employer’s computers, prosecutors in Georgia are considering bringing criminal charges against a former computer administrator at the state’s DeKalb Technical College.

David McOwen found out recently that he could face up to 30 years in jail and fines totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars because he installed some distributed computing software on the school's computers.

In such cases, Hart Edwards said, the deck is stacked against employees singled out for discipline, at least for now.

“Case law favors the employers,” she said. “If the employers own the computers they can control the use of that equipment pretty much without limit.”

Tomino’s termination comes as record labels are cracking down on file-swapping services such as Napster that have allowed unlimited copying and trading of free MP3s. While most of those efforts to date have targeted companies, a few individuals have been caught in the MP3 dragnet.

The Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America have begun sending letters to high-speed Internet service providers, seeking to shut down accounts of customers accused of feeding online piracy through peer-to-peer networks. The legal status of such requests remains in the air, however.

Universities have been a major flash-point in the file-swapping debate, since most of them offer high-speed Internet access to their students. When peer-to-peer file-swapping networks such as Gnutella were first popularized, many schools sought to ban their use as a heavy drain on resources.

In at least one case, campus police confiscated an Oklahoma State University student's computer after the RIAA notified the school that a person on campus was allegedly distributing copyrighted material.

The 19-year-old's computer system--including monitor, keyboard, two CD burners, scanner and printer--was removed earlier this month from his dorm room after campus police determined he was operating an FTP server site that allowed visitors to download MP3 music files and even several full-length movies.

Littler Mendelson’s Hart Edwards said crackdowns on employee computer usage are likely to continue.

“I think you are going to see more of these cases,” she said. “We’re in the infancy of evolving new rules for the Internet. What’s happening now is that employers are groping their way along and doing their best to balance competing interests. But there are very few cases to go by. People are confused about where their privacy expectations end and where employers' right to control technology begins.”

Editorial standards