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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 September, 2003, 22:54 GMT 23:54 UK
Tough lessons for campus pirates

By Stephen Evans
BBC North America Business Correspondent

Music fan
Some music fans think the internet is a law free zone
As American students arrive in college for the start of the new academic year, they're finding they have a new lesson to learn: stealing songs is wrong.

At Yale, for example, they'll be subject to a half hour lecture on the legalities - or illegalities - of downloading free music and video.

At Berkeley in California, students who want a free internet connection will have to undergo an "orientation session" about the law on file-sharing through programmes like KaZaA.

There will also be restrictions on how much data they can down or upload each week.

Many students seem to think, apparently, that the internet is a law free zone.

There seems to be some belief on campus that taking music without paying for it is not quite breaking the law because the big, bad record companies charge high prices - they rip us off so we can rip them off, might be the general tenor of the argument.

Carrot and stick

There may also be a belief that taking an abstract creation like a song without paying - rather than a hard piece of plastic like a CD - is not really taking anyone else's property.

There are signs that the threat of the big stick is having some effect, though perhaps not on the biggest culprits
But college administrators are now worried about the slew of law suits that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has issued.

Four students have already paid between $12,000 and $17,500 to settle claims when they were targeted.

The industry plans to pursue pirates with some vigour, using a carrot-and-stick: pay quite a lot for past free down-loads and we'll call the dogs off, or resist and get hit by a mega-penalty later.

The tactic is broadly to remind those it catches of the truly draconian penalties the law in the United States allows ($150,000 per song - and you don't have to be a Berkeley mathematician to multiply that a few times to get more dollars that any student loan could cover).

Then when the poor student has picked himself up from the floor and the blood returns to his face, the lawyers will say broadly: "OK, we'll let you off the fine if you agree to pay, let's say, a mere $15,000".

'Jaw-dropping' penalty

It's not just college students who've been targeted.

Music pirates
Music piracy is viewed as a major threat to the industry
The mother of a 14-year-old high school student is still contemplating the potential bill after a subpoena arrived from the industry's lawyers.

The lad had 150 songs (now deleted at her urgent insistence) on his computer, and that adds up to a potential jaw-dropping, knee-buckling penalty of $22.5m.

The mother feels the industry is being heavy-handed.

She didn't realise that possessing the file-sharing programmes may be legal but using them to download music without paying is not.

Had it just sent a letter telling her that what the boy was doing was wrong, apparently, she would have listened and intervened.


All the same, there are signs that the threat of the big stick is having some effect, though perhaps not on the biggest culprits.

Instilling fear

The industry has operated a "fear and awe" campaign where it sends messages to programme users warning them that "when you break the law, you risk legal penalties".

Figures released in August by a market research firm showing a drop in the number of American households downloading music in the three months to June, indicating perhaps that the message might have got through.

The RIAA reckons, though, that it's largely the small-time pirates who are being frightened off while the big-timers are still downloading fearlessly.

Fear, though, can still be instilled, it believes.

Several hundred new lawsuits are about to be filed.

The targets will get a letter explaining the allegation and the penalties plus a number to call to do a deal.

Furthermore, in one recent case, a college student was told that just by filing an answer in court, the cost of any final settlement would rise by $50,000.

That's the kind of sum that you don't have to go to Yale to understand.


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