Sitting in a booth at Jones Dining Hall at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Quintus Ferguson and Dawn Diggs munch on lunchtime French fries and ponder the economics, convenience and ethics of pirating music on the Internet.
"A lot of kids think, 'Why bother paying $18 for a CD when you only like one or two cuts on it?'" says Ferguson, a freshman biology major. "You might be able to get a full CD of music you like from somebody who downloads it. He might charge you $5 or $3 if you are friends." Adds Diggs, also a freshman biology major, "Mixed CDs are very valuable."
Such business logic is very clear to major recording companies. For years, they've been waging a losing war against millions of Net-savvy college students who download and copy digital music or videos and sell or swap them. Many students make illegal use of high-speed computer links owned by universities as administrators catch the flak. Meanwhile, the recording industry and artists claim losses of up to $4.2 billion worldwide. By some industry accounts, 2.6 billion songs are downloaded every month, mostly by college students, resulting in a 31 percent drop in album sales since June 2000.
The theft continues and so far, no one has been able to stop it. The record companies, led by their lobby, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), have used intimidation and hunted down alleged student pirates, slapping them with lawsuits and seeking penalties of up to $150,000 per pirated song. Last year, RIAA sought more than 1,000 subpoenas in federal court demanding personal information about pirates from colleges and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Comcast Cable Communications, Verizon and Pacific Bell Internet. More recently, taking a lighter approach, RIAA has linked up with university leaders to find alternatives such as deals that let students download music for free.
Fearing lawsuits, college officials have cracked down on student abuse of university-owned Information Technology systems. Last year, for example, Harvard University toughened up its rules so that any student caught twice downloading music illegally on university systems will have his or her Internet access cut off for one year. Some 220 Penn State students have had their computer access blocked after trying unauthorized downloads. One reason for the stricter measures is the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a federal law that limits liability for online service providers, such as schools, provided that they take corrective steps once abuse is found.
Some schools have turned to their IT departments and in-house computer geeks to come up with arsenals of new electronic weapons to fight piracy. Among the tricks, schools have deliberately slowed down their IT systems to frustrate pirates during peak download hours, usually from afternoon into early evening. At the University of Florida, two graduate students invented ICARUS, or Integrated Computer Application for Recognizing User Service, which pinpoints pirates on the system and then blocks their access. At Virginia State, Ferguson says, the school's IT system has firewalls that immediately block access to such unauthorized download services as Kazaa or Morpheus. When a student tries to connect with such sites, "up pops a statement that (says) you are being monitored and it lists your name, address and the location of the computer you are using," Ferguson says.
The problem is: Students quickly find other illegal download sites that the firewalls aren't yet programmed to block. And, so many thousands of students share or sell illegal downloads that authorities can't realistically crack down on all of them. Exalting students to be ethical often fails on deaf ears when students consider the billions pocketed every year by monster entertainment companies whom they consider wallowing in hubris and greed. Some wouldn't think of shoplifting a CD in a store, but don't see illegal downloads as theft. …