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Advice to ISP's: Sign up for RIAA 101 at a college near you

Update (Jan. 4, 2009): According to a report today in the Wall Street Journal, the RIAA is replacing MediaSentry (see references below) by a Danish company, DtecNet Software. Good news? Bad news? We'll see. -- Steve

After 5 years and 35,000 lawsuits (number of guilty verdicts: zero), the music industry has apparently figured out that it's neither cost-effective nor good business to pick fights with your customers (Music Industry to Abandon Mass Suits, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 19, 2008).

Well, duh!

Instead, the RIAA wants ISP's to pick fights with their customers:

The Recording Industry Association of America said it plans to try an approach that relies on the cooperation of Internet-service providers. The trade group said it has hashed out preliminary agreements with major ISPs under which it will send an email to the provider when it finds a provider's customers making music available online for others to take.

Depending on the agreement, the ISP will either forward the note to customers, or alert customers that they appear to be uploading music illegally, and ask them to stop. If the customers continue the file-sharing, they will get one or two more emails, perhaps accompanied by slower service from the provider. Finally, the ISP may cut off their access altogether.

That is, Big Music wants the commercial ISP's to do what colleges and universities have been doing for years, with one big difference: The targets won't be naive, easily intimidated 18-year-olds desperate to keep their disciplinary records clean. No, now we're talking about the general public, home owners and wage earners, people who've watched enough Law and Order to demand warrants and due process and proof and to make noise when they don't get it. We're talking about targets who are doctors and lawyers and judges and business owners. And legislators. People who can fight back. People whose phone connections and livelihoods might depend on that Internet connection their ISP is threatening to terminate based on an infringement claim from the RIAA. A company concerned about its reputation and its bottom line might want to know what it's getting into before picking fights with these customers.

So here's a suggestion to Comcast and Verizon and any other ISP's planning to take up where the RIAA has left off: Go ask the CIO at your local college what she or he knows about RIAA infringement notices, and be prepared for an earful. For example:

  • Infringement notices are notoriously inaccurate. Campuses routinely receive complaints citing invalid Internet addresses, non-existent computers, out-of-service network ports, and inactive communication links.
  • Network addresses are easily "spoofed". After experiments carried out by a team of computer scientists at the University of Washington, the university received an infringement notice against a printer.
  • RIAA infringement notices come in "spurts", with no relationship to how much file-sharing is actually going on. Earlier this year, campuses all over the country reported a sudden twenty-fold increase in complaints. Was this a massive new outbreak of lawlessness? No, just new software deployed by MediaSentry, the third-party company that generates the RIAA's infringement notices.
  • Oh, and speaking of MediaSentry, you'll want to keep track of the locations where the company has been accused of operating as a private investigator without proper authority, including cases in Massachusetts and Michigan. You might want to hold off on hassling your customers in certain states until the dust settles.
  • As EDUCAUSE learned a few months ago, RIAA infringement notices don't document cases of actual file-sharing but simply the presence of unauthorized files in a shared folder. There's some dispute as to whether "making available" is or isn't illegal, but be sure to get copies of the RIAA's court filings for use by your own attorneys. You'll need them (both the filings and the attorneys).

There's lots more to learn about the RIAA and its infringement notices. Maybe you should take that CIO to lunch.

Your treat.

Steve

This message reflects the opinions of the author, and not necessarily those of EDUCAUSE or its members.

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