To Share or Not to Share

To Share or Not to Share

File sharing has changed the way students get music and raised a question: whose music is it, anyways?

By Gerry Boyle '78


 
By the time Napster landed in court, peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing had multiplied. This next generation doesn't need a central directory; instead users connect directly with clusters of other users. They communicate but the fact that the practice is decentralized makes it very difficult to stop or to show that something illegal is happening on a large scale. And as defenders of the practice point out, there are many legitimate uses for file sharing. Some artists want their work to be shared. Andrew Will '04, for example, freely admits he has used P2P file sharing to offer fellow file sharers music,by the Colby Eight.

So the end of the first Napster didn't end problems at Colby; it just replaced one set with another. In 1999 Colby registered its network in accordance with the Digital Monitoring and Copyright Act. The result was that Colby wasn't liable for what its students were doing, but students' computers could be scanned for copyrighted materials. Soon the complaints were, if not pouring in, then coming in a steady stream of 10 a week. Most were from the recording industry; some were from the Motion Picture Association of America, which tracks pirated movies and television shows. The downloading deputies tracked illegally copied material to Colby through the Internet protocol numbers assigned to the College and to individual computers on its network. "They couldn't see who owned it, who operated that computer, but they could determine the network address," Phillips said.

imageBut Colby could see. The College found itself in the business of notifying students that they were in violation of copyright law and could be prosecuted. Students were told they could protect themselves by signing an affidavit saying they wouldn't supply copyrighted material in the future.

Of course, some pleaded innocent, saying a roommate or friend must have shared the pirated material. Others couldn't be traced, like the person who installed file-sharing software on a computer in Lovejoy 100.

Things seemed to be working smoothly in the file-sharing department at Colby, and then in 2003 the music industry decided to get tougher. The industry started going after students directly, using fast-track subpoenas allowed under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the industry's weapon of choice in going after college file sharers. "When this started happening, we became even more vigorous in our warnings to students," Phillips said. "They were now in a different level of legal peril."

That subpoena process was thrown out by a federal court in December. But Colby, in its in loco parentis role, already has done some technological tinkering in its effort to keep students from getting in file-sharing trouble. Last year Colby limited all of its incoming P2P applications (KaZaa, Morpheus, Gnutella and others) to a very limited bandwidth,one megabit per second. Outgoing file sharing is limited to one kilobit per second, or one one-thousandth of a megabit (by comparison, Colby's Internet bandwidth or capacity is 20 megabits per second). As a result, "the outgoing file sharing is virtually zero," Phillips said. "One of our reasons for doing that is that people who are in most jeopardy are those who are serving files to other people. They are the pushers. They're not just consumers, they're providers. We ratcheted down the network so it is a very small cocktail straw."

In January the recording industry was dealt a setback when a federal court ruled that the so-called "fast-track" subpoena provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act could not be used if the music was on computers that were not accessible by the service provider. That is the situation at Colby, where, as of February, three copyright infringement complaints had been received for the year. Each complaint identified computers on campus that had been used to share between 250 and 1,000 songs. According to Phillips, recent subpoenas (the next level of threat) have targeted computers that had made more than 1,000 songs available, and no one at Colby has been sued for file sharing. He speculates that Colby may have been spared legal action because of its narrow file-sharing bandwidth or because of its visible effort to discourage file sharing. "I think we have just been lucky," Phillips said.

But the conflict between artists and those who want their work for free isn't going away. According to an article published in February in The Chronicle of Higher Education, college students appear to be downloading as much music as they did a year ago, despite the music industry's attempts to crack down.