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Thirty individuals at MIT have been sent pre-litigation settlement letters after allegedly illegally downloading copyrighted music, according to a press release issued by the Recording Industry Association of America last month.

The letters are part of an RIAA strategy announced February 2007 that give students accused of piracy a chance to settle outside of court. The pre-litigation letters offer discounted settlements compared to settlements available after civil court proceedings begin, according to the press release.

Sending pre-litigation letters also allows the RIAA to avoid the potentially costly litigation involved in the RIAA’s previous strategy of “John Doe” lawsuits and subpoenas that order universities to divulge the names of students. Instead, the RIAA contacts schools directly with pre-litigation letters containing IP addresses — addresses used to uniquely define computers on the Internet — of users accused of piracy and the dates of the offenses. The RIAA then requests that schools forward the letters on to users, according to the press release.

Timothy J. McGovern, manager of IT Security Support for Information Services and Technology, said that MIT received the letters and forwarded them on to recipients.

Over 400 letters were sent to students at 22 different universities, said Liz Kennedy, spokeswoman for the RIAA. A listing of the schools involved and the number of letters sent is available on page 18. The letters were sent during the third week of September, said Kennedy.

The notices come on the heels of 23 pre-litigation notices that were sent to MIT in May. Of the 23 individuals, 15 settled outside of court using the pre-litigation offer, according to an RIAA press release. The eight remaining individuals had their records subpoenaed, according to Massachusetts District Court filings. Kennedy said that seven of the remaining eight individuals settled outside of court in a later opportunity, avoiding civil trials. The eighth case was dropped, since the user associated with the IP address used for downloading could not be identified.

Increase in infringement

Over the past year, MIT has seen a sharp increase in alleged copyright infringement, evidenced by the number of received Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notices sent to students. According to data available from IS&T’s Client Support Services, MIT received 576 notices (48 per month) from October 2005 to September 2006. Over the same interval in 2007, MIT received 2,474 notices (roughly 206 per month).

“We still get a lot of DMCA notices,” said McGovern. “My sense is that we are remaining more or less at the high levels that we were at … last winter,” he said. McGovern said that “far above 99 percent” of DMCA notices were for peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic. McGovern did not know if the students who received pre-litigation letters had previously received DMCA notices.

In the weeks after the pre-litigation letters were sent to MIT, two e-mails were sent to the community addressing issues of copyright infringement. The first, from Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75, addressed both hacking and integrity. In the e-mail, Clay said, “Integrity and respect for laws are fundamental elements to our credibility.” The development of new technologies “does not change the standard embodied in law or our obligations,” Clay said. A copy of Clay’s e-mail can be found on page 21.

The second letter, a joint e-mail from Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict and IS&T Vice President Jerrold M. Grochow was focused only on copyright infringement. In the multi-page e-mail, Benedict and Grochow wrote that “MIT strongly discourages … unauthorized downloading and sharing.” The e-mail continues by detailing the law and MIT’s policies regarding copyright violations, legal strategies used by the RIAA, and resources available to students. The entirety of the e-mail can be found online at http://web.mit.edu/copyright/.

McGovern said that the e-mail should not be considered a shift in MIT’s policies, only a restatement of policies that have been in place since 2003.

Neutral network

In addition to deterring piracy by lawsuits and threats of lawsuits, the RIAA has been lobbying Congress to impose restrictions on universities to curb piracy. Some proposed restrictions include traffic shaping systems (hardware that limits the bandwidth available to P2P applications) and network monitoring systems (devices that detect the sharing of copyrighted material).

Other universities have instituted a variety of measures to curb piracy. In May, Stanford University announced a plan to fine students who receive DMCA notices. The fines start at $100 for the first DMCA notice and increase to $1,000 by the third DMCA notice. In April, Ohio University banned all P2P applications. Students who violate the policy will lose internet access and may be subject to disciplinary action.

McGovern said he thought that such restrictions were unlikely for MIT. “There haven’t been any discussions and there are no discussions under way right now [about traffic shaping],” said McGovern. “Personally, I can’t foresee it ever happening,” he said. McGovern, however, stressed that sharing copyrighted material is against MIT’s network policies.

According to the IS&T Web site, a student’s first case of alleged copyright infringement results in a warning, as long as the student responds that the copyrighted material was removed from their computer. A second violation results in temporary suspension of network access and a meeting with IS&T representatives. A third violation results in an indefinite suspension of network access and referral to the Committee on Discipline.

“We have a progressive protocol for repeated infringement,” said McGovern. “Things can certainly go to the Committee on Discipline.”