The New Normal
For the last eight years, Joanna Weinberg one day a month sits down at her computer, opens up iTunes, and begins her search. She takes her $10 monthly allotment and starts at the Top Singles section. Thanks to iTunes raising prices an extra 30 cents, she has to settle for less than an album’s worth of her favorite songs from the last four weeks.
She was an eighth grader in the summer of 2005, the same summer she joined MySpace with her friends. Incidentally, it was the same time she found out the 300 songs her Top Eight convinced her into downloading on LimeWire would rack up a total of $4,000.
“It was kiddy stuff,” Weinberg, now a senior, says. “Like teeny boppers. No rap.”
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued Weinberg, opening a casenotevenherparents,bothlawyers,were willing to fight. She fell victim to a crusade waged against music downloaders from 2003through2008,anerathatsawonly50 authorized music providers in its early days. Approximately one in three people believed the music they downloaded was legal. By the end of the campaign, more users found the legal and more legitimate sources available. But increased legal access doesn’t equal a decrease in illegal downloading.
Weinberg has since moved on and considers the suit another conversation starter. And while her wallet still reels from the indiscretion, she understands why others haven’t stopped. “There are so many outlets to get music for free,” she says.
About five years ago, Syracuse University was a haven for illegal downloaders. Then, in 2007, students and personnel were handed 37 settlement letters from the RIAA—the second- most in the country behind Ohio University. That response, fueled by the growth of illegal services such as Napster and FrostWire, temporarily stalled on-campus activity.
For senior Emma Smelkinson, subscribing to paid services such as Spotify Premium isn’t the same as filling her iPod. Whenever she can’t find what she needs, she’ll download it. Her latest find was the Arctic Monkeys’ AM. She scours the Internet and, from there, lets uTorrent, a popular bittorrent client, do the dirty work.
Sure, there’s a fear of Trojans and viruses, but more underground sites are taking precaution to prove their trustworthiness. The Pirate Bay, for instance, remains one of Smelkinson’s favorites. One of the largest providers of bittorent downloads, the site color-codes uploaders with skulls and crossbones based on reliability— you're labeled pink if you're trusted, green if you're VIP. Such measurements placate anxious downloaders.
“Totally worth it,” Smelkinson says, reflecting a general consensus among SU students who take what they need when it suits them.
Advertising professors Brian Sheehan and James Tsao conducted a study published in 2009 that examined on-campus downloading. Titled “Motivations for Gratifications of Digital Music Piracy Among College Students,” their research found social utility as downloading’s primary driver and peer pressure as the catalyst for its escalation.
RIAA’s old sanctions may still live with the accused, but the majority of downloaders emerged untouched; getting through that time added an element of invincibility. “Everyone had a story of hearing of someone who got sued,” Sheehan says.
In 2008, the RIAA ended its campaign of litigation against offenders like Weinberg. With new means of disseminating music, the industry can’t defend itself. A European Commission Joint Research Centre report published this year found illegal downloads boost legal purchases by two percent— justifying the RIAA’s move away from suing the average leecher.
Now, the industry tries to push fans toward a legal marketplace, shifting focus from enforcement to education. RIAA spokesperson Cara Duckworth saw firsthand the power transfer to the Center for Copyright Information (CCI), an organization created in partnership with the motion picture industry. Under the new warning procedure, downloaders receive up to six warnings before suffering legal action.
“We just let people know that this is going on,” Duckworth says. “Like, ‘Please stop—and here’s a place you can go to get legal music.’”
The push toward legal services such as Spotify, iTunes, or Pandora coincides with the passage of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), which puts universities under more pressure to protect copyright and enforce the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This allows the RIAA to wash its hands of its former responsibilities.
In 2009, they launched Why Music Matters, a website dedicated to presenting alternative options that pay content creators. Their mission focuses on educating the Internet users on what’s legal and illegal—a distinction that previous users such as Smelkinson, whose father introduced her to downloading with the server Kazaa, really needed.
“At that point, I definitely wasn’t aware of the repercussions and didn’t think that peer- file sharing was illegal,” she says.
While the RIAA has lessened its role in enforcement, SU’s Information Technology and Services remains watchful. If caught by a copyright holder, a student could potentially face greater consequences from ITS than from the CCI. But regardless, punishments have receded.
According to Communications Manager Chris Finkle, ITS works to maintain the law of the land and ensure on-campus policies align with industry standards. He didn’t work at SU five years ago, but from stories he’s heard, taking further action was more common then.
These days, five people, including the director, work for ITS’s Information Securities team. They spend most of their time securing the network and protecting it from hackers. Their jurisdiction, however, doesn’t extend beyond that. “There’s nobody sitting at a computer 24/7 looking at what’s going on over the network,” Finkle says.
But when a copyright holder does send notice, the punishment follows the same protocol. Each time a student gets caught, they’re quarantined from the network, but with an opportunity to redeem themselves—if they meet certain requirements.
Strike one: Read SU’s network policy and send an e-mail as proof of completion. Strike two: Make a mandatory appointment with the Director of Information Security for a counseling session. Strike three: You’re out. Not exactly, but repeat offenders will stand before Judicial Affairs, where they’ll have a strong chance of losing network privileges.
Yet even that isn’t enough to break the habit. With ITS and RIAA backing off, a mindset of indifference over piracy laws among college students has replaced fear. Weinberg remembers her friends downloading off AirOrangeX without consequence, following the mentality of a high school prankster: If everyone does it, then no one can get in trouble.
Though Sheehan remembers 2009, when a more prevalent unease over getting caught sat in the back of his students’ minds, popular attitude continues to evolve. “I think our culture is worse for the fact that people do something they know is wrong,” he says. “But they don’t care because they don’t think they are going to get caught. And everyone else says it’s okay.”
A BBC study published last year ranks the United States as the top country for illegal music file transfers at nearly 97 million downloads nationwide. And decreasing government involvement won’t help curb the trend.
Syracuse students have illegally downloaded since the birth of Napster and will continue to do so as long as AirOrangeX is up and running. In Joanna Weinberg’s eyes, they don’t care enough to worry anymore. “You don’t think about getting caught,” she says. “Not in 2013.”
Take, for instance, an introductory communications law seminar. David Rubin stands before a lecture hall of 39 freshmen. As the former S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications dean, he’s well acquainted with his students’ on-campus habits. On the topic of illegal downloading, he throws it back to the room.
“How many of you have done it?” he asks. Every hand goes up.