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Notices of Illegal Music Downloading and File Sharing from the RIAA or MPAA

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The Record Industry Association of America (RIAA), a trade association of recording companies holding music copyrights, and The Motion Picture Association of America are aggressively initiating legal actions against anyone engaging in illegal peer-to-peer (P2P) music and video file sharing. Thousands of students at The University of Texas at Austin, as well as students at many other universities, have been targeted. According to the RIAA, this makes UT Austin the number one source of copyright violations in the nation at this time, which is why our students are coming under ever increasing scrutiny.

Under copyright law, violators can be held liable for a minimum of $750 per violation (each file is a single violation), so it costs the students thousands of dollars to settle the lawsuits out of court. A copyright violation is legally known as "strict liability", which means your knowledge or intent to perform an illegal act is not necessary for you to be liable. If the violations exceed $2,500 in penalties, and if the RIAA or MPAA could prove you had actual intent to violate their copyrights, criminal sanctions could be pursued. At this time, however, LSS is unaware of any criminal penalties being sought. So, while the matter is serious, it is currently still being pursued as a civil matter only and no jail time is being sought.

The RIAA and the MPAA and other copyright holders use automated methods to identify infringements, and even small amounts of sharing are being tracked to a student's IP address. Some students have noted that the IP address on the notices do not match their current IP addresses. This may be because each time you log off of the UT Austin network, the server will drop the IP address you had been using, and when you log on, you will pick up another one. The point is, it is ineffective to argue that because you had a different IP address you have a good defense.

This year, over 280 students at The University of Texas at Austin, as well as students at many other universities, have been targeted. According to the RIAA, this makes UT Austin the number one source of copyright violations in the nation at this time...

In compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the university will respond quickly when notified of alleged copyright infringements occurring from a computer connected to the campus network. Students engaging in downloading and sharing copyrighted material will first receive a warning e-mail that they may be in violation, either through alleged illegal downloading or by allowing legally purchased songs on their computer to be shared with others illegally through a file-sharing program (such as Limewire).

In some cases, the RIAA will then send out another pre-lawsuit settlement notice, similar to the first one received by the student alleged to be in violation. This notice offers the student an opportunity, if they did in fact download and share music or video, to settle early without being sued in Federal Court. If the student chooses not to settle and the copyright holders issue a subpoena to the university seeking the name and address of the individual connected with a particular IP address, the university will release this identification information, allowing the copyright holders to sue the student individually. Once they sue, assuming the student did in fact share the files online, the cost of settlement increases by approximately $1,000. If the student decides to fight the matter in court and is unsuccessful, then the judgment could cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, resulting in a large money judgment that could follow the individual for decades, harming their credit and in some instances hurting job prospects.

In addition to risking a costly civil lawsuit, students who engage in the unauthorized downloading or distribution of copyrighted materials are acting in violation of the UT Austin's Acceptable Use policy. Student Judicial Services also receives a notice of any violation, but does not currently pursue any action against one-time offenders. Repeat violators may be subject to disciplinary action and will be asked to meet with an SJS staff member. The university may also decide to terminate repeat offenders' computer privileges. At greatest risk of being sued are those students living in on campus housing who have a computer connected to the campus network.

Having LimeWire, KaZaA, Blubster, Grokster, BitTorrent, Gnutella, iMesh,CuteMX, Scour, FreeNetfile or any other music or movie file-sharing software on your computer opens the door to liability. While file-sharing software may itself be lawful, there is usually a copyright on the music, video or other files being shared. Unless the copyright owner gives explicit written permission, file sharing is a violation of copyright law. The RIAA has assured us that if you have legally purchased a song and then copied it onto your computer or MP3 player, they are not interested in pursuing you for this action. It is only when you make this material available to others that liability can be incurred.

After an agreement is signed and you have paid, pre-suit settlement of the case will require that the software, as well as all music or movies you have downloaded be removed from your computer. You will also be required to agree never to do it again, or they will have the right to sue you in the future. Simply disabling the "sharing" or "uploading" features is not sufficient. Another important thing to remember is not to remove the offending software after you receive a warning or notice of possible litigation. Doing so constitutes destruction of evidence, and if your case does go to trial you will be liable for sanctions from the court (including possible dismissal of any defenses you may have). Finally, make sure your computer is password protected to prevent others from downloading music or movies onto it.

You can settle the case directly with the RIAA by calling their settlement hotline. This currently costs $3,000, regardless of the number of illegal downloads or instances of sharing you have allegedly performed. Payment can be made by credit card or cashier's check. This is also the settlement cost if you have received several pre-suit settlement letters noting different violation times but the same computer). However, to ensure that all matters are resolved, you must be sure to list each and every case number you have received. If you are unable to pay $3,000 within 20 days or less, you may wish to consider a payment plan. The RIAA is currently allows you to make payments for six (6) months, but the amount of the fine increases to $3,350. If you pay over twelve (12) months, the total amount you have to pay is $3,600. Do not agree to the payment plan if you do not think you can keep up with the payments. If you are late with three or more payments, or stop paying the balance, the original settlement amount will double, and will also damage your credit and cause a federal lawsuit to be filed against you for your alleged original actions.

If you believe you have been wrongfully accused or have additional questions about the documents you have received, you should contact either your own lawyer or Legal Services for Students at 512-471-7796 or Room 4.104A of the Student Services Building.

Please do not ignore the warning and pre-suit settlement letters as this will only cause you much more financial damage in the future. Take action to resolve or fight this matter, either through our office or by contacting another attorney.

To see what you know about illegal downloading, take the "Are you a Pirate?" quiz!

If you have any questions, contact LSS for further assistance.