Record industry makes file-sharer pay

Andrea Wilson

Junior Jacquie Viskovich started downloading music in high school. An avid fan of punk, emo and classic rock, she often used the popular file-swapping site Kazaa to download both mainstream and lesser-known artists.

It all changed last spring, when Viskovich was surprised to learn she was one of 532 individuals being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America. Nine of those students attended Villanova.

Viskovich had previously received a notice from the University to stop sharing music files because the RIAA informed the University in a letter that her IP address was being used to infringe on copyrights. She immediately stopped sharing her files and assumed that was the end of it.

She was wrong. She soon found out that the University had been subpoenaed for her name. Complying with the warning she received prior to the subpoena did not legally release her from liability. By that time, Viskovich had amassed around 1,200 songs on her computer. While she admits her high volume sharing probably made her a target, she says she has heard of people sharing in much higher numbers. The average number of files shared by each individual named in the lawsuit was 837.

When she found out she was being sued for copyright infringement, she considered hiring a lawyer. The University had given her the name of an attorney specializing in such cases. However, she decided that the amount she would have to pay for a lawyer would probably cancel out the benefits. Viskovich agreed to a settlement with the RIAA in the amount of $3,000.

Paying the sum was a strain on the junior’s finances, especially after having already spent much of her money on a five-week trip to Greece. The remaining money she had in her account was completely wiped out by the settlement, and her parents contributed the last third of the sum. While $3,000 was a common amount among the students named in the suit, Dean of Students Paul Pugh said some file sharers across the country have been forced to pay up to $15,000.

What happened to Viskovich is a result of the RIAA’s increasingly aggressive campaign against the file-sharing explosion, which some say is responsible for the 31 percent drop in record sales since 2000. There is no indication the RIAA’s legal efforts will slow down anytime soon.

“These folks are coming after you, and we can’t protect you,” Pugh said.

University General Counsel Dorothy Malloy agreed, adding that University students may be even more vulnerable in future lawsuits.

“Because the lawsuits were successful, I think they will continue,” she said. “Since [Villanova students] were a part of the first group, we’re on the radar screen now.”

For the past year, the University has been making efforts to inform the community about the consequences of copyright infringement, which, in addition to being a criminal offense, is a violation of the University’s Code of Student Conduct.

Pugh said that if the issue continues to be a problem, the University may consider denying offending students Internet access in their dorm rooms. In an age when Internet access has become a necessity, such restrictions could make students’ lives more than inconvenient.

The lawsuits have been a concern on college campuses nationwide, and strategies for curbing the suits vary. Pennsylvania State University recently procured a deal with Napster, the file-swapping fad turned subscription service that now allows users to download tunes legally. In this deal, Penn State pays for the service so all students can download files for free. The move will counteract infringement, but it has been criticized by many as a misuse of funds.

When asked if Villanova would consider a similar deal, Pugh said the University had no such plans.

“Why would we spend money to get a contract when we could spend it on something else?” he said. “I’m not saying never, but I haven’t heard that in any circles.”

Pugh recommended that students consider using legal music downloading sites, which require users to pay a small fee for each file downloaded. Viskovich, however, has reverted to the old-fashioned way of getting the music she wants.

“Two weeks ago was the first time I had bought a CD in years,” she said.

She calculated that purchasing every CD from which she had downloaded songs would have actually been cheaper than being sued.

Though Viskovich, who still hopes to pursue a career in the music industry despite her ordeal, acknowledges the problems with file sharing, she believes what happened to her was unfair. She expressed concern over continued widespread acceptance of illegal downloading. MTV, magazines and even some University professors still talk about downloading music as if it is no big deal, she said.

“Targeting college students is ridiculous. College students have no money to begin with,” she said. “It’s not even the artists who are getting the money. It’s the lawyers.”

She believes the real targets should be the outfits that encourage copyright infringement, like Kazaa, the site she used to share files.

“I definitely think they’re liable. Why should Kazaa exist if probably more than 90 percent of the downloading that happens on it is illegal?”

New legislation being debated in Congress now could make her suggestion a reality. A bill known as the “Induce Act,” would criminalize file-sharing organizations, who have countered that, if enacted, such legislation would violate civil liberties.

“Downloading music was my life. It sounds cheesy, but after I got sued, I couldn’t listen to music at all. I was so depressed,” Viskovich said.