Students used to sharing music and movies with impunity may soon find themselves treading more cautiously after the Recording Industry Association of America filed lawsuits against four students at three different universities last Thursday.

The lawsuits, filed against students who operated Napster-like networks for file sharing from their universities’ servers, marked the first time students were named in court cases over file sharing. Yale Information Technology Services Director Philip Long said the filing of suits against specific students represents a change in procedure that holds individual file-sharing users accountable.

“The have gone after individuals, and they’re seeking rather substantial penalties,” Long said.

Each student named in the lawsuit operated networks that shared up to one million files. The lawsuits asked for damages of $150,000 per copyright infringed. One student attends Princeton University, one attends Michigan Technological University and two attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

Long said the RIAA usually follows the procedure established in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in which copyright holders can make complaints to universities, which then initiate their own investigations. Long said Yale receives approximately one complaint per week.

“In most cases the situation is a minor violation and [students] simply remove the offending material,” Long said.

Princeton communications director Lauren Robinson-Brown said Princeton also uses a complaint procedure and that students are “extremely cooperative.”

But Robinson-Brown said RIAA filed the lawsuits against the students directly, rather than going through the universities.

In a press release, RIAA President Cary Sherman said he hoped the lawsuits would convince other students to refrain from creating similar networks.

“We hope that these suits serve as a stiff deterrent to anyone who is operating or considering setting up a similar system,” Sherman said.

Robinson-Brown said once Princeton sophomore Daniel Peng, one of the defendants, was named in a lawsuit, he took down the site.

“They did not file a complaint against this student,” Robinson-Brown said. “If something is brought to our attention — we can review the material and take action on our own.”

Sherman said the RIAA filed the lawsuit because of the flagrant nature of the file sharing.

“The people who run these Napster networks know full well what they are doing,” Sherman said. “The lawsuits we’ve filed represent an appropriate step given the seriousness of the offense.”

Attempts to contact the students cited in the lawsuits were unsuccessful.

The RIAA has pursued a number of court cases related to file sharing. The organization argues that such computer networks were one of the principal causes of a 9 percent drop in CD sales in 2002.

Long said he thinks people have perceived the RIAA as trying to up the ante in filing lawsuits instead of resorting to the usual complaint procedure.

“From a distance it looks like they’re trying to force the issue,” Long said.

In 2000, the heavy metal band Metallica sued Yale, two other universities and Napster over student use of the well-known file-sharing program. In response, Yale restricted use of Napster on its network. The University was later dropped from the suit.

Long said students should remember that sharing copyrighted material is illegal.

But while Yale — like all other Internet service providers — is responsible for enforcing restrictions on copyright infringement if it is identified on its servers, the University does not monitor file sharing.

“We are not in fact a law enforcement agency,” Long said. “We’re not in the business of trying to protect copyright holders, we’re in the business of being an educational institution.”