WASHINGTON - The music industry’s next weapon against online piracy is being tested at the University of Central Florida - a new front in the battle to stop college students from stealing music and movies.
School officials have confirmed that the campus is experimenting with a new watchdog program designed to prevent students from using computers to swap copyright-protected files.
Developed at the University of Florida, the “Integrity” program tracks data transfers between computers, searching for code patterns that indicate users are illegally transferring material.
Once located, the program automatically tells students they’ve been caught. Depending on the school, this can lead to a range of punishments, such as a temporary ban from the system.
“It’s like having a police car at every intersection,” said Gregory Marchwinski, chief executive officer of Red Lambda, which developed the program and is now based in Longwood, Fla.
Even so, Marchwinski said the Integrity program is not a silver bullet that can stop an underground practice that has gotten more pervasive since students first traded files on Napster in the early 2000s.
“Illegal downloading is not going away,” Marchwinski said. Despite technological advances with programs such as Integrity, online pirates always seem to stay one step ahead in the online cat-and-mouse game.
The result is about 1 billion illegally downloaded songs a month, said Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne, a California-based research firm that tracks online transfers of music.
The pace more than doubles the illegal transfers of five years ago and about equals the legal number of 99-cent songs that industry giant iTunes should expect to sell this year, Garland said.
“It’s higher than ever among young people,” Garland said. Not necessarily because more users are swiping songs, but because better technology allows fewer people to download more music.
The practice is global too - anywhere with a fast Internet connection, he said. At any moment, there are about 10 million people globally logged on to a file-sharing network such as LimeWire or BitTorrent.
For the record companies, the loss of these customers can be especially damaging because young buyers used to spend the most money on albums as they searched for a favorite genre of music, he said.
The result of the online piracy has been a steady drop in compact-disc sales, industry representatives said.
From 2000 to 2005 - the latest figures available - CD sales of compact discs fell from $13.2 billion to $10.5 billion, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
“We are talking about billions of dollars in lost sales, thousands of lost jobs, countless lost career opportunities and major barrier to the growth of a legitimate online marketplace,” said RIAA President Cary Sherman, testifying before Congress in March.
And lately, a key target of RIAA has been higher education.
In the past few weeks, the industry has sent written warnings to dozens of colleges, asking them to pass along legal threats to hundreds of students the industry suspects are stealing music.
These “pre-litigation settlement letters” are intended to pressure students to pay the industry for alleged stealing of music before a lawsuit is filed or taken to court.
Among the schools targeted have been the University of South Florida, with 31 letters, and Florida International University, with 16 letters. Neither UCF nor UF were included in the mass mailings.
It’s a change from a broader legal strategy that RIAA has employed since 2003. Of its previous 18,000 lawsuits, only about a 1,000 were aimed at college students, an RIAA spokeswoman said.
Lawsuits and technologies such as Integrity aren’t the only ways the record companies are trying to stem illegal file-sharing. They also are putting pressure on Congress to change the laws to aid their cause.
Recently, U.S. Rep. Ric Keller of Orlando introduced a measure that would help colleges pay for programs that can stop or limit online piracy on their campus servers.
“This is the kinder, gentler approach we’re starting with,” the Republican lawmaker said. But he warned more punitive steps would follow if colleges did not make a good-faith effort to curb the practice.
Among the options, he said, would be eliminating the longstanding immunity that universities have from copyright lawsuits - opening the door for a legal battle between colleges and the music industry.
“For every one Justin Timberlake, there are hundreds of sound technicians, songwriters and clerical workers” who are harmed by illegal downloading, said Keller, a recipient of RIAA donations.
During the 2006 election cycle, Keller took more than $4,000 from the RIAA, according to The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics.
Keller said the campaign contributions had “zero” influence on his decision to introduce the legislation, noting that he also got significant donations from higher-education sources.
But new efforts to restrict file sharing on college campuses may not be well received in a higher-education environment that values free exchange of information, one intellectual-property expert said.
“I think a lot of universities would recoil at the thought of cutting off access to peer-to-peer downloading services entirely,” said Jim Gibson, director of the Intellectual Property Institute at the University of Richmond.
“Any institution that has a research mission has to be careful of cutting off tools for research,” he said.
At the same time, he said, the online-music format has changed the business so much that it is no longer possible to return to the old model. To survive, he said, the industry must adapt better to the changes.
“We are never going to put a stop to illegal file sharing,” he said. The best the industry can hope for is to reduce the activity to a “dull roar.”