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UC Merced students accused of illegal music piracy -- may face litigation

UC Merced may be a five-hour drive from Los Angeles — but that’s not far enough to avoid the wrath of the entertainment industry.

University officials confirmed that the school has received eight “pre-litigation” letters from the Recording Industry Association of America alleging that people at the school have engaged in the illegal computer uploading and downloading of music.

The letters are a first for UC Merced since the RIAA began cracking down on illegal music “pirates” about a year ago, sending pre-litigation letters and copyright infringement notices to schools where they believe illegal music piracy has occurred.

Richard Kogut, UC Merced’s chief information officer, said the university received the notices Tuesday. They stated that the RIAA plans to pursue the alleged copyright infringement violations in federal court. Kogut said it isn’t known whether the alleged illegal music piracy involves university staff as well as students.

The RIAA identified the illegal music pirates with an “online investigation team” that monitors illegal peer-to-peer song-sharing programs such as LimeWire or BitTorrent, searching for copywritten works that are being shared, RIAA spokesperson Liz Kennedy said in an e-mail.

The attorneys for RIAA, according to the letter, are representing some of the entertainment industry’s heavyweights, including EMI Recorded Music, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group.

The letter states the alleged pirates could be subject to a range of statutory damages under the Copyright Act, starting at a minimum of $750 for each copyrighted recording that has been shared.

Kogut said the RIAA supplied UC Merced with the IP address for each alleged pirate, in addition to the date and time each alleged violation occurred. “UC Merced takes intellectual property rights very seriously,” Kogut said.

Now that UC Merced has received the notices, Kogut said university’s information technology department will try to determine who the alleged abusers are by searching the school’s logs.

The alleged pirates will receive a notice that repeats the claims made in the pre-litigation letters, as well as outlining their options. “We suggest that they seek legal counsel,” Kogut said.

Still, as an Internet service provider, Kogut said the university is neutral on the matter. “We will not provide any information to RIAA without a subpoena,” he said.

Kennedy said the RIAA has sent pre-litigation letters involving alleged music piracy to about 175 schools.

While some may see the illegal uploading and downloading of music as a harmless activity, Kennedy said RIIA takes the issue seriously because the music industry recently has experienced a dramatic decline with “layoffs and closings, fewer bands signed, and inability to invest in the new bands of – due to music theft."

“And, unfortunately, college students are stealing music at an alarmingly high rate,” Kennedy said. “With so many legal services in the marketplace why take the risk of facing a lawsuit from the recording industry, getting in trouble with your university, and paying fines?,” she added.

The pre-litigation letters from the RIAA also state the alleged pirates have 20 days to address the matter, by calling a “settlement information line” or visiting a Web site.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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