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Congress addresses illegal media downloads
USC already offers students an alternative to illegal downloading
Steffi Lau, staff writer
For technology-savvy USC students who tote their iPods, cell phones and laptops around campus, downloading pirated movies and music online is just another part of college life. It has become such a large part that Congress is getting involved.
On Feb. 7, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Higher Education Act, which aims to lower the expenses of attending college.
The legislation includes a measure that would require colleges to deter students from illegally downloading or using peer-to-peer distribution services to obtain intellectual property such as movies and music.
Colleges would be mandated to offer alternatives to illegal downloading and explore technology that would prevent students from doing so.
This bill, however, may have little effect on USC.
"We're already ahead of the game," said Kevin Durkin, director of communications for information technology services.
USC currently takes measures to quell illegal downloading on its networks.
In the beginning of the school year, an e-mail was sent to students informing them about copyright compliance, copyright infringement, peer-to-peer networks and fair-use.
USC also has policies that restrict ResNet bandwidth usage, meaning that if a student exceeds bandwidth limits - which can often be caused by too many downloads - his or her Internet is disabled. The student is then told to schedule a meeting with an Information Technology Services counselor, who will inform them about copyright infringement.
Robert Gustafson, a freshman majoring in electrical engineering, went through one such meeting after he exceeded bandwidth usage and had his Internet access disabled.
"It's basically just a slap on the wrist," he said. "I don't think they're enough to stop students from downloading, but it's a step in the right direction to inform them about the penalties and consequences."
USC also offers a legal alternative to illegal downloading through a partnership with Ruckus Network.
Ruckus is a college-oriented online music service that allows any U.S. college student with a valid .edu e-mail address to listen to music for free.
USC is one of 188 colleges across the nation partnering with Ruckus, according to Ruckus' website.
"It's great for sampling music," said Prateek Tandon, a sophomore majoring in computer science. "Right now I'm learning guitar, so I have to expose myself to lots of music, and Ruckus is good for that. It's better than having to pay one dollar per song at iTunes."
Though Tandon uses Ruckus as his main place for music, only 7,300 USC users appear on its site.
"It's not very well publicized," Tandon said. "Only a handful of people have checked it out, and out of those people, not many actively use it."
While free and legal, Ruckus comes with a host of problems that might prevent students from using it.
Chief among those problems is the fact that Ruckus is not compatible with Mac computers.
Furthermore, Ruckus does not allow music to be transferred to MP3 players without a fee, and even then compatible players are limited. The iPod is not one of them.
Additionally, music cannot be copied or burned to CDs with the free service. The song selection numbers at 3 million compared to the 6 million iTunes offers. And because of Digital Rights Management, song files have licenses that must be renewed every 30 days.
"I used Ruckus for one day and then I stopped," Gustafson said. "I felt it wasn't as easy to use as iTunes, and when I found out I could only use it on Windows Media Player and can't put it on my iPod, there was no point. The fact that Ruckus is not iPod- or Mac-compatible is definitely a deterrent for many students."
Many USC students said they were unaware of the Ruckus service and instead chose to use either illegal peer-to-peer distribution services such as Limewire and Bittorrent, or the legal iTunes service that charges for songs.
In recent years, trade associations such as the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America have made aggressive moves to protect copyright holders' rights, often sending cease-and-desist notices to people caught illegally downloading. In some cases, they have filed lawsuits.
The measure mandating colleges to discourage illegal downloading was a victory for the MPAA and RIAA, pushed along by their efforts to stop copyright infringement through law.
But an interesting twist on the bill came to light this month.
While pressuring legislators for laws that would discourage downloading, the MPAA cited a 2005 report by the association that stated 44 percent of the industry's domestic revenue losses could be blamed on illegal downloading of movies by college students.
This meant college policies discouraging piracy could have a significant positive impact on the industry. This month it acknowledged a gross error in its study, saying that college students only account for 15 percent.
Mark Luker, vice president of national campus IT group Educause, who opposes the bill, said the impact figure is even lower at around three percent of industry losses, since 80 percent of students live off campus.
Bringing these figures closer to home, John Heidemann, a research assistant professor at the Viterbi School of Engineering and senior projects leader at USC's Information Sciences Institute, conducted a study in June 2007 that examined USC's traffic and tried to detect peer to peer activity.
The study found that only 3 to 13 percent of active USC hosts used peer to peer distribution, though the study had no way of determining whether the content was legal or illegal.
Heidemann said the idea for the study sparked from hearing "extravagant claims about vast amounts of data on internet being peer to peer distribution."
From his study, he was able to conclude that the number of bytes moved in and out of USC was much smaller than the claims alleged, but illegal downloading does exist at USC.
Taylor Matsumoto, a junior majoring in economics, uses Limewire and iTunes to get his music, citing convenience and the free cost in Limewire's favor.
"When I was living on campus, I made sure to monitor how much I downloaded so I wouldn't get caught," he said. "But now that I live off campus, I don't, care since the chances of being caught are minimal."
Matsumoto tried using Ruckus briefly, but stopped because he found the song selection was not wide enough and he could not transfer the music to his iPod or iTunes.
His complaints are similar to many criticisms that students have about Ruckus.
"I don't think Ruckus addresses the root causes of downloading," Tandon said. "The reason people download is because they want to own music for free. They want the functionality of carrying around music, and Ruckus isn't the solution for that… The ideal site would have a good business model to pay the artists while allowing students to download the music and port it anywhere... how that site would work, I'm not sure."
Because the bill has yet to become law, Durkin says it is too premature to tell whether USC will have to alter its policies toward illegal downloading. Meanwhile, students continue to download.
"I don't think USC can really stop downloading," Gustafson
said. "It's part of the culture of students."
©2014-2015 Steffi Lau. All rights reserved.