Freely available Internet access for those in educational establishments meant unprecedented numbers of young people going online, and with that a large upswing in unauthorized downloading.
The RIAA was one of the first groups to take a stand, suing thousands of students across the United States in an effort to send a message that free music may very well come at a cost. Later, changes in legislation meant that schools and universities across the country could lose funding if they didn’t keep piracy under control.
Of course, students continue to download to this day and each time they do they risk receiving a warning letter or worse, as students in Canada are finding out.
According to the copyright office at the University of Manitoba, mainly US-based rightsholders are writing on a regular basis to students demanding cash settlements for alleged infringement.
Noting that the university forwards copyright infringement notices to students as they’re required to under the country’s ‘notice and notice‘ regime, the copyright office says some of the letters are “tantamount to extortion.”
In a piece published in official student newspaper The Manitoban, copyright office strategy manager Joel Guenette says that while many of the 8,000 notices received are legitimate (HBO is said to have sent many warnings in connection with Game of Thrones downloads), others sink to reprehensible lows.
In addition to cautioning over the potential for multi-million dollar lawsuits, some notice senders are stepping up their threats to suggest that students could lose their scholarships if fines aren’t paid. For visiting students, things become even more scary.
According to the university’s copyright office, some porn producers have told foreign students that they could face deportation if an immediate cash settlement of hundreds of dollars is not forthcoming.
“None of these are real consequences that could ever happen in the Canadian scheme of things, but we hear from students all the time – especially international students – who are really freaked out by this,” Guenette says.
While being scared is understandable in such situations, Guenette’s department is keen to educate students on what these notices really mean. Particularly, they’re keen to stress that notice senders have no idea who notices have been delivered to, so students shouldn’t believe that copyright holders already know who they are.
Day to day, there’s nothing in current law that compels the University to hand over their identities but students can still compromise themselves by negotiating directly with notice senders, so that isn’t advised.
“We can’t tell students ‘ignore these notices’ and we can’t tell students ‘never pay a claim’ but, personally, I want students to know what these are and I want them to know that most of these settlement claims are extortion,” Guenette says.
“When I’m talking to students directly, without giving them legal advice, I would say ‘if I were you, I would never pay this.’ In my opinion, I don’t think any student on campus should be paying this.”
The University of Manitoba certainly isn’t on its own as other educational establishments are reporting similar problems. According to a separate report, the University of Calgary also finds itself in a similar position.
The university says that it’s been receiving similar copyright notices since January 2015 and now wants to crackdown on unlawful file-sharing across campus. A meeting took place in August to discuss how the university intends to deal with unauthorized downloading but the problem isn’t straightforward.
“We can certainly track an IP address, but the difficulty is that the owner of that device is not necessarily the downloader of content. Someone can use someone else’s computer without that person’s knowledge,” says provost and vice-president Dru Marshall.
Complications aside, it’s likely that if the flood of notices to universities continue, they could be forced to take more robust action. How that will manifest itself is yet to be seen, but it’s unlikely that copyright trolls will benefit, despite being the main cause of the problem.