UW policy on illegal file sharing unlike other universities

Several universities in Washington state have received pre-lawsuit settlement letters as part of the recording industry’s attempt to deter the continually expanding illegal file sharing community.

While many universities have automatically forwarded these letters to the offending students, the University of Washington has adopted a different policy, where students only receive letters when they may face legal charges.

Eric Godfrey, the vice provost for student life at the University of Washington, said that because the UW does not forward all of the letters, they have received considerable negative press.

“We are not in the business of determining fault, or distinguishing right from wrong,” Godfrey said. “The only thing that we are concerned about is giving information to students when needed.”

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began sending universities pre-lawsuit letters targeting online campus music sharing last February, according to an article in Tacoma’s News Tribune.

The early settlement letters identify file sharing offenders on university servers by their Internet Protocol addresses and ask the universities to internally forward the letters to users. The letters give violators 20 days to settle with the RIAA for approximately $3,000 to $5,000 or be sued for copyright infringement, where material is downloaded or shared with others without the consent of the legal and copyrighted owner.

Other colleges, such as Western Washington University, have forwarded all of these letters to their students unconditionally.

“We wanted them to be informed that the RIAA was making an allegation against them,” said John Lawson, spokesman for Western Washington University.

Godfrey and Todd Mildon, the director of student data management at the UW, both claim that two prevalent misstatements have been printed in regards the UW’s policy on these file sharing letters.

Despite reports to the contrary, Godfrey and Mildon maintain that the UW does forward some of these letters to its students and that the UW does not engage in “determining fault.”

As it currently exists, the UW’s policy is to inform the students of the letter when there is likelihood that the student will face actual legal consequences. In other words, the UW will only inform students when they have a chance of actually being sued by the RIAA.

More often than not, several students can be named in these pre-lawsuit settlement letters (through their IP address) due to the existence of networks.

Mildon said few, if any, of these types of “ambiguous” lawsuit letters will come to fruition.

Although they have been aware of this file sharing for years, this policy is relatively new for the UW, as the RIAA did not adopt their current crusade until last year. A group of student leaders and staff members are working to determine the legal validity of these letters.

Godfrey and Mildon both believe that most of the letters fall into the ambiguous category, and there is a slim chance students named in the letter would face actually legal troubles.

If the University believes that a case is “unambiguous,” it will forward the letter to the offending student and suggest that he or she retain legal counsel or assistance from Student Legal Services.

They will not, however, tell the student how they should act, Godfrey said.

For now, both Godfrey and Mildon encourage students to only use RIAA approved legal file sharing Web sites, such as iTunes, Napster and Rhapsody. Most importantly, they said, is that students better educate themselves on the potential hazards of file sharing.

[Reach reporter Chris Heide at news@thedaily.washington.edu.]

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