Last fall, the Yale College Executive Committee heard cases from 59 students on issues ranging from plagiarism to underage drinking. But four students faced the committee for an infringement that the University does not monitor directly: Internet piracy.
When ExComm began reviewing cases of Internet piracy in 2007-’08, three students faced the committee for downloading copyrighted materials. Only two students were tried in the following three years — one in 2009-’10 and one in 2010-’11.
But Yale does not actively police its networks for illegal activity. Instead, when it traces an act of Internet piracy to Yale’s networks, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sends the University’s copyright agent warnings of copyright infringements, which include the violator’s IP address and the name of the copyrighted file.
The RIAA, an organization of record labels and distributors that seeks to protect the companies’ intellectual property rights, focuses much of its legal efforts on file sharing of pirated music at college and university networks nationwide because universities can more easily address complaints than most other internet service providers.
Though the RIAA maintains the right to sue students, punishment is left largely to the discretion of universities, yet Yale’s relatively relaxed response may not deter all students from illegal activity.
‘A RATHER LIBERAL POLICY’
Last November, a sophomore in Berkeley said she received an unwelcome email. The sender? “Copyright Agent.”
The sophomore, who wished to remain anonymous because of her illegal activities, estimated that 60 percent of her current music library came from illegal downloads. She added that many people she knows at Yale also download illegally.
This email was her second warning: when RIAA notifies Yale of a student’s first violation of copyright law, the University calls for the student to delete the illegal file. The second infringement results in disabled network access until the student meets with his or her dean in order to sign the IT Appropriate Use Policy.
The sophomore said she was relieved to find the punishment so lenient. Since receiving the two warnings, she said she decided she has continued to download illegal music but has done so more discreetly — she now avoids popular and recently released titles.
“The first time I got caught, I was so scared it would be really bad,” the sophomore said. “But my dean and master didn’t say anything about it. [The University’s] reaction to it wasn’t serious. I just had to email back and say I promise I wouldn’t do it again.”
After the University receives a complaint from the RIAA, the copyright agent traces the IP address to the corresponding Yale NetID in order to identify the offender and send the appropriate email warning. In the case of undergraduate violations, the Master and Dean of the student’s residential college are included as recipients as well.
A junior who also wished to remain anonymous said she was surprised to receive her first notice last April since she believes her friends download more copyrighted material than she does and have not been caught. When she got her second notice in December, she said she had already forgotten about the first.
A third infringement, according to Yale College Executive Committee chair Carol Jacobs, requires the student to testify before the committee.
In all nine cases that the committee has seen since it began trying cases six years ago, the charged student received a reprimand, a decision that leaves the student unpunished but with the understanding that another breach would lead to more severe punishment.
“It’s a rather liberal policy,” Jacobs said. “The way Yale handles [piracy] is with patience and integrity.”
None of the students heard by the committee last fall contested the charges, Jacobs added.
Seven out of thirteen students randomly interviewed said they have downloaded copyrighted files illegally using Yale’s network. Two had received copyright infringement notices.
Ike Lee ’15, who has not pirated Internet files at Yale, said he is skeptical that all students who download music illegally at Yale are caught. He added that pirating files while at home over break is less risky.
“There’s nothing so urgent that can’t wait until I get back home to download instead,” Lee said.
Colleges and universities nationwide have taken various approaches to addressing complaints, many of which involve more serious punishments for copyright violators than those that Yale issues.
Under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), enacted in 1998, Yale and other universities are not liable for copyright infringement on their networks as long as they respond to every complaint and enforce anti-piracy policies such as terminating network access for repeat offenders. With the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, attention turned specifically to internet policies on college campuses. University administrators were required to follow three guidelines: inform students about copyright law and policies, implement a plan to “effectively combat the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials” by its network users and offer alternatives to illegal downloading.
Some universities, for example, impose fines at a second violation, ranging from $35 at Cornell University to $500 at Stanford University. University of California, Los Angeles requires that first-time violators attend workshops with the dean of students. For second infringements, students must undergo a formal sanctioning process, including a discussion with the dean, writing an essay and passing a computer checkup. Internet access is suspended until each process is completed, and a third violation may lead to a student’s suspension.
Others impose limits on user activity, unlike Yale. Nearby Southern Connecticut State University blocks all peer-to-peer traffic and contacts users who download a large amount of data, while UCLA imposes limits on the amount of data that students can download or upload in a given time span. But very few, if any, universities actively monitor their networks for illegal activities. All rely on notifications from the RIAA.
University President Richard Levin said he has not been heard formal concerns about the issue since the RIAA initiated conversations with universities about enforcing copyright laws nearly a decade ago.
A Yale junior who received two violation warnings said she hoped the department would better inform students about the consequences of illegal downloading for undergraduates. Yale’s ITS website describes the process by which Yale receives complaints and addresses them, though four students interviewed who had not illegally downloaded said they are not aware of the consequences.
ITS spokesman Jane Livingston said that ITS hosted an anti-filesharing poster and video campaign targeted at undergraduates in 2008 and sees reviving the campaign as a possibility to increase awareness. She added that said ITS has not made any recent policy changes regarding copyright infringement, and does not plan to do so in the near future.
“Networked systems will always have vulnerabilities, including those that allow for copyright infringement,” Livingston said, adding that ITS tries to reduce illegal downloading through regular evaluations of the network’s configuration.
Elizabeth Stark, a computer science professor who teaches courses on media law, said she believes the best anti-piracy policies would help students acquire copyrighted works legally for a reasonable price. She suggested that Yale could offer discounts to students to purchase media from Spotify or Netflix.
Lee, a freshman, said he strongly opposes any active enforcement by the University, calling it “too paternalistic.”
“If Yale chooses not to punish kids for underage drinking, which is a much bigger and more important problem to deal with, then it makes no sense for ITS to punish students for doing something like this,” Lee said.