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File Swapping Lawsuits: Is Your District Next?

Districts need to create and enforce acceptable P2P trading policies

The Recording Industry Association of America recently mounted a get-tough policy against illegal online file swappers. One of the first 261 lawsuits charged a 12-year-old honors student, who lives in a city housing project apartment in New York. She mistakenly believed she was entitled to download any music over the Internet, since she purchased a subscription for online file-sharing software.

While critics claim the suit was overzealous enforcement by the powerful industry group, the girl's mother acknowledged that her daughter's unwitting actions violated U.S. copyright laws and paid an out-of-court settlement of $2,000.

It is essential to protect school resources against illegal file sharing and make acceptable-use policies explicit.

The RIAA states that illegal file sharing has become rampant, and such lawsuits may multiply into the thousands. U.S. copyright laws allow for damages of $750 to $150,000 for each song obtained illegally that is on a person's computer. The RIAA settled recent cases for $12,500 to $17,000 each. RIAA officials are blaming file sharing for a 31 percent decline in CD music sales over a three-year period. The gloves are off.

File Sharing Revolution

Peer-to-peer, or P2P, file sharing was created by the free software Napster, that initiated a revolution in online computing. Rather than share files through centralized locations such as FTP sites, Napster made it possible for individuals to swap files directly with other users. For example, when a user requested a particular song, Napster searched its network to find computers that had that file, and transferred the song from one online machine to the other.

While P2P sharing can trade documents, graphics, photographs and software, applied to music the concept became a pop culture sensation. Individuals across the nation collected copyrighted media they had not purchased, and Napster found itself embroiled in lawsuits that forced it to shut down. However, new legally protected P2P services have since taken its place, including Kazaa, Gnutella, iMesh and Morpheus. An estimated 60 million Americans participate in file-sharing networks, and half are teenagers. As one student put it, "File sharing will never go away, and when one method dies, 10 more will sprout up."

District Concerns

There are countless valuable and legitimate school applications for file sharing, such as exchanging projects with other districts and downloading public files, including archived speeches from Congress and film clips from NASA.

However, intentional or inadvertent, illegal file sharing has become a huge problem, and students and staff likely participate at home and in school, particularly in districts that offer high-speed connections. Furthermore, schools that provide laptops for 24-hour use may find that students install software for downloading music, games and movie files. Administrators in the Henrico County, Virg., schools collected student iBooks temporarily so technicians could strip out file-sharing software that was eating up bandwidth in the 42,000-student district.

It has become essential to protect school resources against illegal file sharing, make acceptable-use policies explicit, and educate students, staff and parents about new consequences for illegal actions. While some may not know they are breaking the law, a recent Pew study found that a striking 67 percent of users who download music say they do not care whether or not it is copyrighted. The RIAA wants those people to know that they may be subpoenaed, even if they are 12-year-olds.

Web Resources

Recording Industry Association of America

Henrico County Public Schools


Pew Internet & American Life Project

Odvard Egil Dyrli is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.