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Record firms crack down on campuses

They ask 13 colleges, including UMass, to identify file swappers

The Recording Industry Association of America has opened one of its biggest assaults yet on illegal file swapping with warning letters to 13 colleges, including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, asking them to identify on-campus file swappers who the industry intends to pursue for copyright violations.

The RIAA says those letters are just the first in a new wave of notifications heading for college campuses. But four years and 18,000 lawsuits into the courthouse campaign against illegal downloads, some question whether the tough tactics are working.

"We think this is clearly, exactly the wrong direction to be taking," said Corynne McSherry, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet civil liberties group and vocal critic of the music industry's campaign. "It's very clear that illegal downloading is continuing apace and is doing just fine."

The music industry concedes piracy remains rampant. RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy said 80 million tunes were legally downloaded last December, but illegal downloads were nearly six times higher at 466 million songs.

Still, Lamy thinks the legal assault has begun to turn the tide. "What we've done is to help stabilize the problem," he said. "It's no longer growing exponentially." But the research firm Nielsen SoundScan said legal music downloads were up 67 percent last year.

The recording industry has made it tougher to find illegal music by stamping out the best-known file-swapping networks. In 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of music companies and movie studios in their lawsuit against the popular Grokster file-swapping service, which led to its shutdown and the closing of other swapping sites like WinMX and eDonkey.

Between the Grokster ruling and the thousands of suits against individuals, Lamy said the music industry has educated millions who once saw nothing wrong with downloading songs without paying for them. "One of the reasons people don't download illegally is the fear of lawsuits," Lamy said.

But some of those targeted by the lawsuits are parents of minor children who either didn't know their kids were downloading or weren't aware it was illegal. "We certainly are not copyright thief types," said Robyn Werry, a 45-year-old nurse in Clayville, R.I. She and her husband, Scott, have been fighting an RIAA suit filed against them last year. Werry said her children had been downloading music but added, "Why is it so easy for them to do it if it's illegal? And then you're going to go after the parents of these kids and take all their money?"

The RIAA has so far settled about 5,700 of the 18,000 lawsuits, usually for around $4,000. Werry's legal advisers have persuaded her to do the same, because she has little chance of winning. "I'm giving them my daughter's college money," said Werry.

Reports of such stiff financial penalties may be having an impact, according to data from research firm NPD Group. Russ Krupnick, a vice president of the entertainment unit at NPD, said last year saw a 7.6 percent increase in the number of households engaged in such illegal downloading, down from 16 percent the previous year.

But there was a big increase in the number of illegal files being traded. "You've got fewer people who are coming into the activity," said Krupnick. "The problem is the people you've got left . . . are just being incredibly aggressive about it." For example, the typical file swapper downloaded 38 percent more files last year than in 2005.

The RIAA estimates that between 60 and 70 percent of current file swappers use the biggest surviving service, LimeWire. Last autumn, the group filed suit against LimeWire and hopes to drive it out of business soon.

Some technology industry leaders believe music companies should stop selling their songs with "digital rights management" or DRM software, which restricts the copying of legally downloaded music.

Apple chief executive Steve Jobs recently issued an open letter to the music industry calling for the abandonment of DRM. "This is clearly the best alternative for consumers," said Jobs, "and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat." Recording companies denounced the idea, but some are willing to experiment with it. Last year, the online music service run by Internet giant Yahoo Inc. won permission to offer DRM-free recordings by pop stars Jesse McCartney and Jessica Simpson.

While industry specialists concede the lawsuits have warned off many would-be file swappers generally, a survey by the Intellectual Property Institute at the University of Richmond's School of Law found that more than half of college students still download music and movies illegally.

That explains last week's campus crusade against piracy. UMass Amherst and other affected schools have been notified that someone using a particular campus Internet address has been engaged in illicit file swapping. The school has no legal liability, but it must identify the person using the address so the RIAA can file suit. UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said the school would provide the information promptly and would cut off any offending student's Internet access, at least temporarily, and counsel them against illegal file swapping.

Eric Garland, chief executive of BigChampagne Media Measurement in Beverly Hills, Calif., thinks the RIAA's latest gambit is meant to goad colleges into cracking down on file piracy. "The real intent of this new focus on students is probably as much about applying pressure on college and university administrators to clean up their networks, as it is about students."

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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