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May 16, 2007

B-Sides: College students in musical crosshairs

I’m not implying this ever really happened, but …

Just suppose, hypothetically of course, that a friend slapped down $8.99 and bought Eric Clapton’s “Slow Hand” album, brand new — so new that the vinyl LP (yes, this scenario would happen in 1977) crackled with static when it first slid out of the jacket. Then, that friend dubbed a copy onto one of those new-fangled cassette tapes and gave it to you. (Probably because he owed you money for, say, pizza.)

Think that was OK?

Well, you might as well have just ripped the tag off a mattress in a department store, because it was against federal law.

Turn the clock forward 30 years. A college kid goes to the CD shop, looking for The Disturbed (that’s a band) and buys it. The kid takes it back to his dorm room and makes an MP3 copy of that CD, which is perfectly legal. But then he decides to put that MP3 copy onto the Internet through a file-sharing network, allowing thousands, maybe millions, of other network users to download it for free. That’s perfectly illegal.

What’s the difference between the 1977 and 2007 instances? Ethically, it’s probably a draw. But 21st-century technology makes it possible to cross that line without ever spending a dime.

And it is those temptations that have placed college students squarely in the crosshairs of the recording industry.

On Tuesday, the Recording Industry Association of America — the enforcer for major labels — filed lawsuits for illegal file sharing against 23 network users (presumably students) at Indiana University. On May 3, the RIAA filed 21 similar lawsuits against network users at Purdue. Since it began an “anti-piracy initiative” in January, the RIAA has sent litigation warnings to more than 1,600 people on college campuses around the nation. These students could end up paying thousands of dollars (up to $750 per song) in damages for infringing on music copyrights.

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