It's move-in day for freshmen at the University of Maryland's College Park campus and the narrow lawn outside Denton Hall is strewn with piles of suitcases, bedding and Dell computer boxes. If recent history is any guide, the smiling teens wandering amid the makeshift encampments are primed to join the next generation of hard-core music pirates who'll raid Internet file-swapping networks for hundreds of thousands of illegally copied songs over the next four years.
Jason, an incoming physics major guarding a pile of boxes, summed up the sentiment that terrifies record company executives: "I'll end up downloading something at some point, I'm not going to let them say, 'Oh, we're going to get mad at you a little bit' [and] deter me from what I want to do."
The university environment has proved to be something of a "perfect storm" for encouraging illegal downloading. Teenagers arrive on campuses already armed with powerful computers and are greeted with free high-speed Internet connections, unprecedented privacy and scads of free time. A college student built the original Napster in the late 1990s to swap songs with his buddies, and universities have been hotbeds of downloading activity ever since.
The recording industry has watched disc sales fall from a high of $13.2 billion in 2000 to $11.2 billion in 2003, a period that also witnessed the exponential growth of "peer to peer" song swapping, known in online shorthand as "P2P." Although it's difficult to measure college students' precise contribution to that phenomenon, experts say they are some of the most active illegal downloaders. Companies that monitor file-swapping activity see predictable spikes in file-swapping activity when college students go back to campus, and troughs when they go home for vacation.
"I know when it's spring break without looking at the calendar," said Mark Ishikawa, the chief executive of Los Gatos, Calif.-based BayTSP, which monitors peer-to-peer networks on behalf of entertainment and software companies. Ishikawa said he tracked about 140,000 electronic infringements a week against one of his movie studio clients at the beginning of August but by the end of the month -- as students began to move back in -- that number rose to nearly 190,000 infringements a week. Ishikawa wouldn't name the studio but said he sees similar trends for all his clients.
In 2003, the recording industry stepped up its crackdown against illegal song-swappers, suing thousands of people and issuing warnings to thousands more. Officials at Washington-area schools have responded by boosting efforts to quash the practice, which eats up their electronic resources and lately has forced them to handle a glut of cease-and-desist letters from entertainment-industry lawyers.
At schools throughout the region, administrators have stepped up their efforts to educate students, stiffened penalties for copyright violations, installed technology to restrict abnormal Internet traffic and in one high-profile case, given students a legal way to download their favorite songs.
Lots of Letters and a Skit
Although schools have differing strategies for tackling electronic piracy, the unifying factor among those efforts is increased education.
Some schools may be moving more slowly toward changing their disciplinary codes or buying the slickest new technology to "shape" the bandwidth that students use, but "virtually every university has been pro-active -- at least about educating students," Recording Industry Association of America President Cary Sherman said.
Every incoming Maryland freshman got a bright-yellow letter from the provost warning against file-swapping, tucked into the "Get Connected" pamphlet that tells them how to set up their Internet connections. Georgetown and George Mason universities sent out similar warnings to all of their students.