Web Site of Recordings Draws Copyright Concerns

Just where do they draw the line of legality on the Harvard network? One unfortunate first-year found out the hard way when a record company discovered illegal information being distributed from his Web site.

Following the example of countless other Web sites, the student, who asked not to be named, distributed MPEG Audio Layer-3 (MP3) music files on his homepage.

The trouble began when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) discovered his site and wrote a letter to President Neil L. Rudenstine. The group threatened legal action against Harvard unless something was done to stop the student's copyright violations.

The student was asked to dismantle the site and write letters of apology to various deans, including Assistant Dean of Freshmen Eleanor A. Sparagana. His letter was sent to the Administrative Board on Monday, but its decision in the case is still pending, the student said.

MP3s of copyrighted music--while popular and widespread on the Internet--are in fact against the law.

MP3s allow music to be stored in a fairly small amount of space with extremely high-quality sound.

The fact that they are freely distributed on many legitimate-looking Internet sites does not make their copyright violations any less illegal.

Within the past month, the Harvard student said, he created first a personal Web page and then his own FTP server so that his friends could download their favorite songs in MP3 format onto their personal computers.

"I did know it was technically illegal, but I figured that it wasn't any more illegal than anything that happens on the Internet," he said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

In response to a frequently asked question about the legality of these files, a current Web site devoted to MP3s states: "It's legal if you encode MP3s from your own CDs and keep them to yourself. But it's illegal to encode MP3's and trade them with others." The Web site's address is http://www.MP3.com.

The situation is analogous to copying CDs onto blank tapes. If a student makes a copy for herself, she probably would not be caught, but if she were to copy a song and distribute it to millions of people, the ramifications would be much more serious.

This is exactly what happened to the Harvard student. His Web page, which was originally password-protected for his close friends only, became a very highly trafficked site on the Internet.

When a friend of the student actually found his MP3 page on a Web search engine, the student immediately shut down anonymous access.

Soon after, the RIAA found his site--which contained 250 songs--and informed Rudenstine of his violations.

In a news release posted on the Internet, Hilary Rosen, president and chief executive of RIAA, said: "Copyright is an American tradition that dates back to our Constitution because it reflects our values."

Rosen said she believes copyright laws must be enforced on the Internet as strictly as they are elsewhere.

"It's as wrong to help someone steal as it is to steal. It's right to give credit where credit is due. That's true in a record store and it's true online," she said in the release.

The student said the Administrative Board dealt with the issue as an "attempt at theft."

Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 declined to comment on the incident, in accordance with the administration policy's not to discuss individual disciplinary cases.

According to Franklin M. Steen, director of computer services for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, RIAA sent similar letters to a number of other university presidents.

The record companies find it much easier to target students because they know that they will be disciplined by their respective universities. Many of the companies on the Internet that also distribute MP3s are much harder to locate and punish.

Steen said he believes that the distinction between music that is already in the public domain, and music that is protected by copyright laws, is very hard to determine.

"We must educate people to know what's right and wrong, but this is very hard to do," Steen said.

Harvard students must realize that when they put up Web sites, they have a responsibility to know that what they are doing is in accordance with the law, according to Steen.

The first-year was not the first student to deal with the Administrative Board for an issue relating to the Internet.

Michael L. Develin '00 said he received a warning from the Ad Board for "misusing network resources" this past September.

He and two friends created a Web site with a circle of links as a prank. Their goal was to be listed on a so-called "communist page" for having received a very large number of hits.

But their Web site--which got 20,000 hits in a three hour period--put a strain on Harvard's network.

Develin said he believes his case is different from the first-year student's because it was discovered by the Harvard Arts and Sciences Computer Services (HASCS) and is against HASCS's rules, but is not illegal outside of Harvard.

There is a "tough balance between freedom of information and copyright infringement" on the Internet, Develin said.

The first-year said he has learned a lot from his own experience. "I am never getting involved in anything like this again," he said.

He said he believes the Internet and those who govern it must deal with the many egregious violations of copyright law that currently exist.

"The 'Net calls itself a community," he said. "If they abuse things, then record and software companies are going to crack down and everybody will get nothing."

He also thinks that MP3s have a bright future as long as they are modified by record companies and distributed legally.

What originally seemed like jaywalking to this unsuspecting student, actually turned out to be a "bad error in judgment," which he said he hopes will deter other students from repeating his mistakes