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After Napster: Intellectual Property Violations on Campus

May 31, 2011

Free music and movies? Sounds great. Unfortunately, the catch is that most of the ways you can get free media aren't entirely legal. You might think that you'd be relatively safe with illegal downloads on a college campus, but that's not exactly the case.

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By Sarah Wright

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Illegal Downloading on Campus

Illegal downloading is a hot topic when it comes to consumption of media. Many entertainment executives blame declining profits on this trend, while experts in favor of file sharing argue that the practice isn't solely to blame for falling sales. Wherever you stand on the issue, if you're a college student, you probably know at least one person who gets the bulk of their music, movies and television entertainment from files they've downloaded for free over the Internet.

There are several ways of getting media files from the Internet, and a college campus' high-speed, reliable network connection provides a quick means of getting music and video files from the Internet to your desktop. Many college students share files without paying for anything, either through file sharing systems like torrenting or by sharing media they already have over the school's network. It's so quick and easy, it can be hard to remember that sharing copyrighted material in this way has been found to be illegal in multiple court cases. Though the results are great - entertainment for free - you might want to think twice before engaging in the practice.

Your college or university is under no obligation to protect you from this kind of prosecution. Some schools hesitate to turn over information about individual users on their networks, but many are agreeing to cooperate with entertainment industry groups like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). One important thing to keep in mind is that downloading on a high-traffic connection, such as the Internet service at your school, isn't necessarily going to protect you from prosecution for illegal downloading.

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What to Do

You may feel like you've got some cover if you're hiding out in a network with thousands of users, but that's not necessarily the case. And at some schools, additional consequences may be imposed if you're caught downloading, such as loss of an Internet connection in your dorm room. If you download torrents, film studios and music production companies sometimes put out fake files that will log your IP address while you think you're getting a TV show or album for free. There are multiple ways for media conglomerates to monitor who is trying to access their protected material for free.

It's true that many people manage to download a lot of media without ever getting so much as a form cease-and-desist letter from a media company's legal department. But there are multiple stories of college students being sued by copyright holders for thousands of dollars. One famous case is that of Jammie Thomas-Rasset, who, though not a college student, ended up being found guilty of downloading 24 songs from a file sharing service. She fought the case in court, but the judge found in favor of the RIAA, and imposed a $1.5 million liability on Thomas-Rasset.

The easiest solution to the problem of wanting to avoid prosecution for illegal downloading is to get your digital movies and music from an online store, like Amazon or iTunes. But since many college students feel pressed for cash, these options might not be appealing. Plus, video rental stores are shutting down rapidly. It can be difficult to get access to a movie you want to watch without shelling out the high price for a new DVD. Even a digital copy of a popular movie can exceed ten dollars. But having a limited budget or no access to rentals is not a valid legal excuse for downloading copyrighted material without paying for it. If you are worried about paying sky-high prices for brand-new music and movies, you can save some cash by subscribing to a rental or streaming access service, like Netflix or Rhapsody. These can offer you access to a wide variety of media, sometimes giving you unlimited access for less than ten dollars a month.

Another way to get free (and totally legal) entertainment is through educational public radio programming.

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