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Have you received a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) violation notification for sharing copyrighted materials online, or are you worried that you might? This week’s column explains what happens when you get one of these notices.

What kinds of copyright violation notifications have been sent to MIT students?

A Takedown Notice orders the removal of one or more files that have been shared in apparent violation of copyright. This type of notice is sent directly to MIT and typically contains the IP address of the machine involved, the time and date of the file transfer, the name and size of the file, and what the file is believed to contain (e.g. a specific song or TV show). There is no distinction between whether the file transfer was an upload or a download. This notice does not require MIT to identify you, just that it ensures that you have removed the file.

A Subpoena Notification is a written notice (including a copy of the subpoena) originating from MIT’s Senior Counsel’s office informing you that a subpoena has been validly served on MIT in connection with a lawsuit filed concerning a certain IP address that is registered to you. This means that a lawyer acting on behalf of a copyright holder has asked the Court to compel MIT (which is not itself a party to the lawsuit) to release identifying information of yours relating to the IP address at the particular time and date that the infringement is alleged to have occurred. The Court allows subpoenas to be served in connection with such “John Doe” lawsuits, in which the lawsuit is filed prior to identification of its target through IP address records.

MIT sends you this notice because it is required under the Family Education Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) to send reasonable notice when it receives a subpoena requested potential personal education records. The Court has been instructing MIT to give such notice and to wait 14 days after the notice is sent before producing the requested information. Contrary to sometimes popular belief, MIT can not just tell the other lawyers to shove it. MIT is required to comply with lawfully issued subpoenas.

Where do these notifications come from?

All types of notifications come to you directly from MIT Information Services & Technology (IS&T), but both the Takedown Notice and Subpoena Notification are in response to a communication that MIT has received from an outside party (‘the man’). In this instance, MIT is not ‘the man’ — MIT does not monitor your computer or network usage looking for copyright violations. In most cases, ‘the man’ is one of several companies employed by a trade organization such as the RIAA (music), MPAA (movies) or ESA (software) to find and prosecute copyright violations. Detecting infringement is what these companies get paid for, so they work hard at it, and it is not safe to assume that they do not know about a particular file-sharing network or type of content. We also suspect that .edu domains receive the bulk of their attention due to the rich pickings to be found there, so you are in their prime hunting ground.

Although MIT is not trying to catch copyright violators, it is also not trying to protect them. Illegal filesharing is a violation of MIT’s policies as well as the law, so MIT does act on cases that are brought to its attention, provided they appear to be genuine. It’s worth noting that MIT’s internal process is independent of the subpoena process. Just because you haven’t received a Takedown Notice doesn’t mean a subpoena that has been filed to discover your name isn’t valid — MIT may never have been informed of an infringement prior to receiving the subpoena.

What should I do if I get a notice?

If you get a Takedown Notice, the process is simple. Read the email carefully. It will contain the entire original infringement complaint. Disable any peer-to-peer file sharing software you might be using, such as Gnutella or KaZaA. If you got caught fair and square, remove the files. Even if you think the notice might be bogus, search your machine for the listed files and verify that they are illegal copyrighted works if you can find them. If so, remove the files before re-enabling file sharing. Then inform IS&T that your machine is legal.

If you get a Subpoena Notification, it almost certainly means that a potentially expensive civil lawsuit is coming down the pipe. You should consult a lawyer as soon as possible, particularly if you believe that you may have grounds for quashing the subpoena within the 14-day window.

What shouldn’t I do if I get a notice?

Don’t just blow it off. If you don’t respond to a Takedown Notice within two days, IS&T will cut off your machine’s network connection. For a static IP address, this means shutting off your network drop. For a dynamically assigned (DHCP) address, this means blacklisting your computer’s network adapter so it can’t get an IP address on either the wired or wireless networks. Getting it reactivated requires more effort than just cleaning up the machine and responding.

Don’t do anything rash. For a Takedown Notice, don’t contact the complaining company. They don’t know who you are and they don’t need to know.

For a Subpoena Notification, don’t modify your computer’s contents to try and remove the infringement. Many subpoenas come equipped with protection of evidence notices, so removal of the infringing files might expose you to felony criminal prosecution in addition to the civil suit you may already face.

What happens to me if I get a second Takedown Notice?

While it’s not a catastrophe, things get more serious. IS&T will shut off your network connection immediately, and you will have to meet with them to get it reactivated (after you have made sure your machine is legal). The meeting is not supposed to stress you out, but to make sure you understand what’s going on. IS&T will ask you to sign a letter confirming that you understand and had a chance to ask questions. They will re-activate your network connection straight after the meeting — it will probably be back by the time you get home. You can also e-mail or call them with any further questions, although they will not discuss specific cases other than your own.

What happens to me if I get a third Takedown Notice?

This is when things get rough. Students with third violations are referred to the Committee on Discipline (CoD). The results of CoD hearings are not always predictable. Potential sanctions could range from long-term loss of network service to actual academic suspension for the semester. It’s best not to go there.

What if I can’t remember how many notices I’ve had?

Well, of course the safest thing is not to share files illegally. If you’ve chosen to run the risk, IS&T is in the process of going through their records and letting all 2-warning students know that they are at risk of the big third strike. So if you don’t get one of these messages, you can safely assume that you’ve had fewer than 2 notices at this point.

Where can I find more information?

MIT’s policy on unauthorized sharing of copyrighted materials is located at http://web.mit.edu/ist/topics/security/copyright/p2p.html. The official protocol IS&T follows in response to infringement notices is located at http://web.mit.edu/stopit/infringe-proc.html, and you can visit http://web.mit.edu/stopit/copyright.html for a summary of IS&T’s recommendations for your own response.

To ask us a question, send email to sipb@mit.edu. We’ll try to answer quickly, and we might address your question in our next column. You can also stop by our office in W20-557 or call us at x3-7788 if you need help. Copies of each column and pointers to additional information are posted on our Web site: http://www.mit.edu/~asksipb/.