RIAA Targets Harvard Student

Letter to Provost’s office indicates subpoena for violation may be upcoming

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has specifically targeted at least one Harvard College student in its current legal campaign against the piracy of copyrighted music.

According to Robert Mitchell, director of communications for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), the RIAA has sent at least one “pre-subpoena letter” to the Associate Provost’s office. The letter serves as an “advance warning” that a student or students will “probably be subpoenaed,” Mitchell said.

He said the decision of whether to go forward with legal action will be up to the RIAA alone.

According to RIAA spokeswoman Jenni R. Engebretsen, the RIAA’s records showed that lawsuits have been filed against only two Harvard students—both of whom committed the alleged copyright violations on computers in the Longwood Medical area.

While those two lawsuits did not seem to be aimed at students in the College, Mitchell said the pre-subpoena letter did concern undergraduates.

“[The letter] doesn’t mean that [students] have been sued...as I understand it,” he said. He added that he only knew of one case involving the Longwood area, and that it involved a School of Public Health affiliate.

Mitchell said that although the University plays no role in determining the legal consequences faced by students caught sharing copyrighted material, it does require students to agree to comply with copyright law before they are allowed access to the University network.

“In terms of consequences from Harvard, needless to say, we take the matter very seriously,” he said. “But what the RIAA does—how they pursue it—is up to them.”

Mitchell added that any legal action taken against students by the RIAA would not affect their academic standing at Harvard or be added to their personal records.

He said the University does not actively look for students who are violating copyright law, but that it occasionally discovers such cases “when there’s a lot of bandwidth being used.” In these situations, a series of warning letters is sent to the student involved.

Students can lose network privileges for one year if they remain in violation, Mitchell said. He added that students who receive and comply with warnings from the University are still not protected from legal liability.

Engebretsen said the RIAA has filed approximately 9,100 lawsuits against individuals for copyright infringement since September 2003.

“The way these lawsuits work is, we file them as ‘John Doe’ lawsuits,” she said. This means that the RIAA files a lawsuit without knowing the identity of the defendant. The name of the person being sued is then found out during the discovery process of the legal proceedings.

Under normal circumstances, Harvard will not disclose names of students who use IP addresses that have been implicated in illegal file sharing. However, Mitchell said, if required to do so by a subpoena, the University will comply.

—Staff writer Matthew S. Lebowitz can be reached at mslebow@fas.harvard.edu.