At the turn of the century, online piracy hubs began to surface at universities around the world.
Seemingly unlimited broadband connections and the presence of many tech-savvy students provided an ideal breeding ground for the rapid expanision of the file-sharing craze.
Napster and Limewire played a major role in this growth, as well as DC++ and i2hub, which typically relied on closed networks. Students exchanged hub/server addresses with each other in order to share files at very high speeds within local networks or between universities.
Universities Ordered to Tackle Piracy
This virtual free-for-all lasted for years and in some places continues today. In the United States, however, higher education institutions were forced to put the brakes on piracy due to the passing of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) in 2008.
Students today may not be aware of it, but the HEOA requires American universities and colleges to adopt and implement effective anti-piracy policies. These should include technological anti-piracy measures as well as educational material to deter piracy.
It’s not hard to find these policies outlined on various university websites, paired with obligatory warnings. Here’s what the University of Texas writes.
“If you copy and distribute copyrighted material without legal permission, you may be found liable for civil or criminal copyright infringement. Civil penalties for Federal Copyright infringement range from $750 per song to $150,000 in damages for each willful act.”
Piracy Scammers Abuse Universities
While universities and colleges do their best to abide by the rules, outsiders have started to exploit these same institutions to promote piracy-related scams.
When we conducted some Google searches targeting the official website for The University of Texas at Austin, several scammy results came up, advertising pirated movies including The Super Mario Bros. Movie.
Some of these links have since disappeared but at the time of writing, we are still able to access several of the links. These include a PDF file that advertises a free copy of “Avatar: The Way of Water”, as shown below.
Like many others, the advert shown above arrives as a file containing a link to a third-party website. In this case, the link goes to a dodgy movie platform that immediately triggers anti-virus alerts warning of potential harm to devices or risks to personal data.
Scams Target Many Universities
These PDFs are not clever guerilla marketing tactics by Robin Hood-inspired pirates. Instead, they tend to trick people into believing that there are free films available but in reality link to scams or attempt to obtain victims’ credit card details.
It’s worth pointing out that Texan University is by no means the only site with this type of spam problem, we have seen similar piracy ‘ads’ at the University of Oregon, UMass Amherst, The George Washington University, The University of Rhode Island, and many others.
The scammers have struck gold by exploiting the university websites. These sites are seen as authoritative by search engines such as Google. As a result, the scammy PDFs are now among the top results for several piracy-related queries, beating ‘real’ pirate sites.
We have to say though, that most universities and colleges are quick to remove most of these PDFs, which are typically added through public upload tools. In many cases, the files are gone within a few days.
How many people ultimately fall for these dubious advertisements is unknown. Most people will probably recognize the scams right away but it requires only a few victims to make it worthwhile for the scammers.