The Stanford Copyright Integrity Initiative

If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I’ve commented often on file-sharing, copyright, and universities certainly more than a few times and while my blogging has been sparse lately, today’s announcement of “The Stanford Copyright Integrity Initiative” deserved spending some time on a blog post. The initiative was apparently “introduced by Stanford University to demonstrate the university’s leadership in efforts to strengthen the integrity of copyrights and intellectual property.” As early as a little before 10am this morning, my department (Student Computing/Residential Computing) received an email from a worried student– after reading the announcement on the front page of The Daily, the University’s student newspaper, the student visited riaa.stanford.edu (as directed in the article) and after entering his name, found that Stanford “has likely reported” his name to the RIAA, MPAA, or ESA. The student was both confused and worried– you see, after receiving his first copyright complaint a little while back, he hasn’t illegally downloaded a single song, movie or anything else! Has his computer been hacked? Did file-sharing somehow get accidentally enabled on his computer?

This truth is that this clever little stunt was part of the annual fake Daily published by the Stanford Chaparral (or the “Chappie” as it’s affectionately called), Stanford’s student humor magazine. The article is actually quite well-researched and well-written, including references to actual facts, such as the highly publicized “three strikes” policy” in which students not only face increasingly severe disciplinary actions for repeated DMCA violations and complaints, but are also charged increasing amounts of money through associated “reconnection fees.” The article also says that over thirty students have reached their third strike in the past year with settlements with the complaining record companies totaling over $100,000. While the numbers are about right– over thirty students and settlements totaling about $100,000 in the past year– they actually apply to the results of the record companies’ “pre-litigation letter” campaign that started in 2007 and in which they target college students all over the country with the threat of lawsuits. As part of the new “integrity initiative,” the article explains, Stanford is now scanning its network for DMCA violations and actively reports the culprits to the “RIAA and other appropriate authorities.” In the first day alone, the article continues, “78 unnamed students” have already been reported and the University’s IT organization “predicts that approximately 34% of Stanford undergraduates will be contacted by the end of Wednesday.” (That’s approximately 2,274 students.) The article goes on to direct students on how to find out if they’ve been flagged (via riaa.stanford.edu) and in turn, find legal help (the EFF gets a nod).

The article itself was pretty funny– Stanford, like other universities, has been spending increasing amounts of resources dealing with illegal file-sharing and copyright and personally, I think it was a good jab at how ludicrous the effects of the DMCA and intimidation tactics of the entertainment industry have become.* Just last week, I was summarizing the results from the annual undergraduate computing survey and many students commented on their dissatisfaction with the University’s handling of file-sharing and copyright issues, wishing Stanford would take a stronger stance against the RIAA and the MPAA’s efforts.

The website though… I don’t want to be a spoilsport, but aside from probably breaking some basic network usage policies (for setting up riaa.stanford.edu, use of the Stanford seal, etc.), the website took it a little too far. The reality is that since the first lawsuits targeting students (circa 2003), the University really has been stepping up their efforts to stop illegal file-sharing and punish repeat offenders and something like this initiative isn’t completely impossible. The reality is that over thirty Stanford students– peers and perhaps even friends of the Chappie staff members– really have been sent pre-litigation letters and really have had to pay approximately $100,000 in settlement deals. The reality is that the entertainment industry really is targeting college students– people who have little knowledge of their legal options and/or resources to defend themselves. When you enter your name and hit submit at riaa.stanford.edu, it looks like they use your name to randomly** give you either a thumbs up (you haven’t been reported) or thumbs down (you’ve already been reported and look forward to a letter in the next three to four weeks). I would hate to think that a student who’s already paid out thousands of dollars because of a pre-litigation letter was tricked into going to the website and got a thumbs down.

I don’t know how long the site will stay up and working, so if you’re curious, here are some screenshots, etc.:

Notes:

* If you’re curious about Stanford’s actual policies on file-sharing and copyright, check out my department’s FAQ on File-Sharing & Copyright (also used by the General Counsel’s Office as well as the Information Security Office as the University’s “official” FAQ on the issue).

** It’s pseudorandom– the algorithm they’re using is deterministic. Unfortunately, no matter what Leland Stanford, Jr. does, he will always show up reported to the authorities.