File Sharing? In Pittsburgh?

I'm not sure why RIAA suits against Pitt and CMU students are important enough to be above the fold in this morning's Post-Gazette. About the only "news" here is that the file sharing students are using i2hub, rather than Grokster or WinMX or BitTorrent.

To the merits, though:

Are the students guilty? No, they're not guilty of anything. Guilt is a criminal law concept. The students are being sued in civil proceedings, so they may be liable for copyright infringement, but they haven't been accused of crimes. Are they liable? If the news report is accurate about the scale of what they were doing, then I suspect that they may be, and rightly so. But when it comes to accurately tracking use of file sharing systems by individuals, the RIAA has a mediocre record.

Didn't the students steal music? No again. "Stealing" means that someone took something that didn't belong to that person -- and that the victim no longer has that thing. That's not what's going on here. The recording companies still have their copyrights, and they will have them for decades to come. (Note, of course, that the recording companies are the copyright victims, not songwriters and performers; nothing has been "stolen" from the artists except the gruel .) Did the students "get" music without paying for it? In a sense, yes. But all of us "get" music and movies without paying for them. All the time. Every day. For hours on end. It's called radio. And try your local public library. Borrow a DVD. Watch it over and over. Return it. Repeat. Creativity doesn't "want" to be free. Creativity is free. If you want to subscribe to NetFlix, go ahead. Personally, I like the Carnegie Library system.

Wait -- what about "respecting" artists? Copyright law isn't about respect. It's about money. Do you respect your parents? I hope so. Do you pay them? I hope not. If you want to respect an artist, publish a glowing (and genuine) review of her work.

Of course, people who download music without paying a fee aren't returning CDs or DVDs. They're making copies for themselves. But the RIAA isn't really chasing the downloaders, aka the "thieves," or "pirates." The RIAA is chasing the uploaders -- students who make thousands of files available for others to download. It's more difficult to call these people "thieves," since it's more difficult to see what these people "get" out of the uploads. There is a harm here -- but it's a harm to the RIAA's lock on the market for distributing copies of recorded music. I don't suggest that the harm should be ignored. As I said above, these students may deserve to lose their cases. But we should recognize the harm for what it is. This is an incumbent industry using the law and the courts to protect its market. Nothing more.

The most interesting part of the cases is the use of the Internet2, a high-speed research-oriented network used by universities -- and now used by the i2hub. Are Pitt and CMU liable for their students' misconduct by knowingly making available a computer system that can be used for massive copyright infringement? If the answer is "no" (as I think the answer should be), is Grokster a different case? Grokster is trying to make money from its software, while Pitt and CMU are not-for-profit "educators." Then -- what about companies that sell high-speed photocopiers? High-speed scanners? DVD burners? Surely Xerox and HP know what people do with their machines.


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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