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Downloading Drama

While UA officials ponder what to do, officials in Oregon fight file-sharing lawsuits head-on

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If Woody Guthrie were alive today, perhaps he would write up a little song about the University of Oregon and Oregon's attorney general, who happens to have the great folk-song name of Hardy Myers.

And if such a song existed, now would be a good time to sing it at the steps of the UA's Administration Building, because the school is sitting on 14 pre-settlement letters that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) wants the university to send on to students who have allegedly shared music through peer-to-peer (p2p) social-networking Web sites.

According to Johnny Cruz, the UA's director of media relations, the university received the pre-settlement letters in December 2006, although the RIAA didn't file a complaint in U.S. District Court until last month.

Cruz said that a UA exploratory group was formed in March 2007 to analyze technical and legal solutions regarding illegal downloading and file sharing, and to see what the UA could legally do in response to the RIAA.

The exploratory group published a three-page memo in May 2007 that concluded the UA did not have to forward the pre-settlement letters to students, because the university is not legally required to do so.

While the school is under no legal obligation, the letters do give students a chance to settle with the RIAA at a rate of about $3,000, if they go with their credit cards to www.p2plawsuit.com . However, if the students never get the pre-settlement letters, they could face individual lawsuits filed by the RIAA, and watch the charges climb to $4,500 or more. Also, if the students ignore the lawsuits, the complaints often move to default judgments in favor of the RIAA.

Cruz doesn't know what the UA's next step will be, besides sitting on the letters. As of last week, the university had not received an expected subpoena from the RIAA that would ask the school to identify and provide the student names that go with the 14 IP addresses the association identified through its college investigations.

Matching those numbers with student accounts could be a challenge, since different students use different computers all over

campus.

"So if someone is logged on to a computer in a residence hall, that same day, (that same student) might also log in at the student union," Cruz says. "I haven't seen any names, but I would imagine that it wouldn't be simple to ID a specific student or specific person, considering the number of employees and visitors we have that go online, too."

Perhaps the UA should look to the University of Oregon and Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers for inspiration. The University of Oregon received its own set of pre-settlement letters last year, and the RIAA then subpoenaed the school, asking officials to identify 17 students who had allegedly shared songs from Journey, the Cars, Dire Straits, Sting and Madonna.

Myers did what no other state or college has done: He filed a motion to quash the subpoena. Myers is arguing that the industry is misleading the judge and grossly violating student privacy laws; Myers is also questioning the RIAA's use of MediaSentry, the company that searches for illegally shared music.

Investigators in Oregon--and Arizona--are required to be licensed. Myers is arguing that MediaSentry's investigation practices are ethically questionable and illegal without an Oregon investigators' license.

Within the past five years, the RIAA has filed about 30,000 lawsuits. Most of the people identified by the RIAA have settled, paying the standard offer of $3,000 to $4,500. If someone chooses to fight, the result can be years of litigation and thousands of dollars in attorneys fees, at minimum (see "Thank You for Not Sharing," Feb. 28). The RIAA's student campaign, which began two years ago, has resulted in more than 5,000 letters being sent to students at 150 schools across the country.

Officials at the University of Oregon say they've been advised by the Oregon Attorney General's Office not to speak, and referred all calls to the Oregon AG spokesperson Stephanie Soden.

Soden says the RIAA filed its lawsuit against the University of Oregon on Aug. 8, 2007; on Sept. 17, 2007, the university received the letters asking the school to provide names for each investigated IP address.

"Early that summer, the university was already in discussion with industry representatives (on preventing illegal downloading and file sharing on campus)," Soden says. "The suit was filed, and the subpoenas were delivered, which wasn't necessarily a shock, but it was disrespectful after sitting down to talk about

the issue."

The university, Soden adds, has never condoned illegal downloads. All along, they have conducted training and taken other steps to prohibit students from illegal activities on the college Internet system.

Oregon's attorney general is involved, because in Oregon, the AG represents all state agencies, including the University of Oregon. In Arizona, the Board of Regents has its own private legal representation, and each state school has a legal staff.

It's been five months since Myers filed a motion to quash the RIAA's subpoena. Soden says they are still waiting to hear from a federal judge.

"We are kind of at the mercy of the judicial process. In this case, the federal system is a lot slower than the state-court process," Soden says.

During the wait, Soden says, the AG's office has been keeping a close watch on how other universities are responding to RIAA subpoenas; she says she can't comment on how the UA has responded thus far. The language of the subpoena is different for each case, she says.

"But I do know that the industry needs to make a very strong case," Soden says. "The courts need to realize the difficult position the RIAA puts universities in, making these schools potentially open for liability. ... Federal law is really clear that student information remain confidential."

The public response to the fight against the RIAA has been overwhelmingly positive in Oregon and among anti-RIAA activists throughout the country.

"Most people don't like to be intimidated by a big industry with deep pockets," Soden says. "And here is this AG with limited resources, but talented folks, taking them on."

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