WASHINGTON – The University of Maryland student who was convicted of federal copyright infringement charges last week for his part in a high-volume software piracy ring was, by all accounts, an extreme example of a commonplace problem.
The university has received 1,641 complaints about students sharing copyrighted on its network since 1999, said Amy Ginther, director of Maryland’s Project NEThics.
But she said that only 14 of those complaints were against repeat offenders. And for students who are sharing copyrighted files — including at least 247 last year at the College Park campus — the university is likely to do little more than ask them to take down the material.
The students may face disciplinary action if they continue, but their identities will not be released to authorities unless it is compelled to do so by a subpoena.
There have been some subpoenas issued as part of criminal investigations, Ginther said, but said the frequency of such investigations is “quite rare” — generally about one or two per semester — and there has never been a subpoena from a corporation or trade associations, which file the bulk of the complaints.
Jason Schultz, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the university is taking the right approach by not turning over students voluntarily. Students should not lose their Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure just because they are using university computer networks, he said.
“You put the onus on the people demanding the information,” Schultz said of the requirement that student information be subpoenaed by investigators.
University officials said they do not know whether Jeffrey Lerman used their equipment or networks in a conspiracy with two other men to pirate computer game software and illegally distribute it.
University spokesman George Cathcart said the university’s Office of Information Technology was not part of the ongoing FBI investigation, dubbed “Operation Higher Education,” and did not know about Lerman’s activities until after his conviction.
Lerman pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Connecticut on Tuesday to conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement and faces up to five years in prison.
John Zacker, director of student discipline for the Office of Student Conduct, refuse to comment specifically on Lerman’s case, but said that generally a student can be disciplined for criminal activity regardless of whether it occurred on campus or off.
But while university discipline would appear to be the least of Lerman’s worries, it is typically the worst most students will face.
For a first file-sharing offense, the university simply asks the student to take down the offending material and provides information on how to disable file-sharing from the student’s computer. Repeat offenders are referred to the Office of Student Conduct or, if they live on campus, the Department of Resident Life.
Those students could face punishment ranging from reprimand or probation up to suspension or expulsion, Zacker said, but punishment varies based on the severity of the infringement and prior disciplinary history.
Zacker said that in fiscal 2004 there was only one incident of computer misconduct requiring discipline by his office. The vast majority of cases are handled by the Department of Resident Life, where Rights and Responsibilities Coordinator Chris Taylor said his office only handled 15 discipline cases involving piracy in 2004.
Those cases involve second-time offenders. Three-time offenders can get probation, but Taylor said there has never been a third-time offender in the four years he has coordinated discipline for on-campus housing.
Robert M. Kruger, vice president for enforcement at the Business Software Alliance, agreed with Schultz that the university is taking the right approach.
He said his association, which sends out “hundreds of thousands” of copyright complaints a year, never asks universities to identify offending individuals. Instead, it asks them to inform the user of the complaint, and warn them against further violations.
“Combating piracy and protecting privacy interests are not incompatible,” Kruger said of the practice, before adding, “Nobody has a privacy right to steal.”
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