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File-Sharing Suits Pass Over Harvard

Though University has seen no RIAA subpoenas, officials are wary

By Nathan J. Heller, Crimson Staff Writer

University officials said Harvard has not received any subpoenas from legal representatives of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), in spite of a recent spate of legal actions that the organization has taken against college students nationwide for sharing copyrighted music files.

Though the University has not yet declared an official response policy should it receive file-sharing subpoena orders, those familiar with Harvard’s policy on file sharing said the University would probably comply with any legal imperatives it should encounter in the future.

“I would assume we would look at any subpoena on its own merits,” said Assistant Provost for Information Technology Daniel D. Moriarty. “The legal advice we’re getting is that not complying with a subpoena would be really inconsistent with the University’s response to subpoenas in general.”

By contrast, three local schools—Boston College, Boston University and MIT—recently announced that they do not intend to comply with recent RIAA subpoenas filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, based on a component of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure which states that subpoenas must be issued by a court within 100 miles of their subject.

The RIAA first took legal action against university students in April when it sued undergraduates at Michigan Technological University, Princeton University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for allegedly engaging in illegal file sharing. Several more suits have followed in the ensuing months.

The recent round of subpoenas was only the first wave of a larger effort to bring illegal file sharers to court, an RIAA spokesperson said.

While she would not say precisely what criteria the RIAA was using to determine whom to sue or how many law suits had be filed to date, she said the first round of suits were targeted toward the most extreme abusers of file-trading software. Future rounds of law suits will probably target slightly smaller-scale misusers, she said.

Moriarty said he fears for what Harvard students could conceivably face in light of the recent wave of lawsuits.

“My concern for students has gone up because of the activity of these various associations,” he said. “I think it’s certainly sensible to say that given recent national activity on subpoenas and lawsuits that go after specific students, the risk is there, and people need to be careful.”

Many students are unaware that several popular filesharing programs automatically establish student computers as servers, unless programed otherwise, making them prime targets for lawsuits, he said.

But some undergraduates, like Albert K. Luo ’04, said they do not feel threatened by RIAA’s recent legal actions.

“I will continue to download in the wake of these subpoenas,” Luo said.

While the precise number of file sharers at Harvard is not known, Moriarty says the Harvard network would show a great deal of filesharing activity if left unmonitored.

“If the network bandwidth is not managed, filesharing traffic can overwhelm certain students’ subnet,s” he said.

“We can see generally how much traffic someone’s using—if you’re using a pretty normal share [or] if you’re using 20 percent of the University’s bandwidth,” explained Kevin S. Davis ’98, who is coordinator of residential computing for the Harvard Arts and Sciences Computing Services (HASCS).

The University does not closely scrutinize the sort of content passing through the network, he said.

“Harvard’s not tracking to see whether you’ve been trading the latest P. Diddy song,” said Davis, who is also a Crimson editor. “We’re just the utility, were just the internet company if you will, providing you service.”

This approach assumes some trust in students, he said. But at the same time, it shifts the legal onus to their shoulders.

“It means on the flip side that Harvard students ultimately bear the responsibility for what they do over the network.”

In light of recent concern and legal threats, the University has worked to comply with present file-sharing law, which comes in the form of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA).

“By and large the policy of the University today is in response to DMCA regulations,” said Moriarty, who administers a University website devoted to clarifying the law for Harvard users. “That’s what the law requires and we are fully compliant with the law.”

The DMCA requires Harvard to notify network users thought to be file sharers and to suspend network access of repeat offenders for a year—a policy that former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 put into effect shortly after the RIAA launched its suits against students last April.

If a copyright owner claims an infringement occurred over the University network, the claim passes through a special agent and is investigated by network administrators at one of Harvard’s schools.

If network workers have reason to believe that a student is using a file-sharing application illegally, they will issue a warning notice.

Users are identified by the IP addresses of their computers, assigned and recorded during network registration.

The network administrators sent out 21 of these notices in June, according to HASCS Director Frank M. Steen. Harvard has issued only six letters through July and August. Steen explained that summer numbers are lower because far fewer summer students use their own computers, opting instead for machines in one of the University’s labs.

And so Harvard sits out the summer, waiting for the flux of students—and network traffic—that the fall will surely bring to the University campus.

An RIAA spokesperson, meanwhile, says the lawsuits this spring were only the most recent cases.

“No one is above the law,” she says. “There’s no free pass to steal music.”

—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at

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