By Jose San Mateo

UC Santa Cruz students with a taste for free music could be in for a nasty surprise. Last month, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sent letters to 17 UCSC students who allegedly downloaded music illegally.

These pre-lawsuit letters are aimed at streamlining the litigation process in cases of illegal file trafficking against college students. The new process will offer students the opportunity to settle any claims against them at a discounted rate, to avoid a formal lawsuit.

The number of students that illegally obtain music and movies is staggering. According to Student Monitor, a market research company focused on the college student market, a January 2005 survey showed that over 1.5 million college students admitted to illegally downloading music and movies.

Steven Mark, Executive Vice President and General Counsel for RIAA, said in an online chat with university newspapers that the punitive damages from a civil suit could rise as high as $150,000 per song.

The pre-litigation settlement letters will inform the school in question of a copyright infringement suit, and request that university administrators forward the letter to the appropriate network user. RIAA’s new process has not gone over well with several universities, and some have refused to deliver the letters to students.

The University of Maine and the University of Wisconsin have already refused to deliver RIAA’s letters, and question how the RIAA managed to obtain network information on university students.

Jenii Engebretson, a spokesperson for RIAA, clarified the information gathering process. She said, “We do the very same thing on [peer to peer] that anybody else can. Then we ask the university to forward letters to students.”

When asked whether RIAA would file suit against universities that do not comply with its request, Engebretson skimmed over the issue, but she did say that illegal music downloading is a problem for universities, too.

“University bandwidth is also used in music theft,” Engelbretson said.

Jim Burns, a spokesperson for UCSC, confirmed that the letters would be forwarded to students. According to Burns, forwarding letters it is a part of UC policy.

“We have chosen to send supplemental communication advising students that we are not making a determination of infringement,” he said.

RIAA has a vested interest in prosecuting these cases because the group represents the U.S. recording industry, which manufactures approximately 90 percent of all legitimate sound recording produced and sold in the United States.

Eric Weld, a project manager for Student Monitor, explained that RIAA’s approach to illegal music distribution is nothing new.

“[RIAA is] trying to change students’ attitude towards the practice by laying out a case for what is logical and fair,” he said.

Weld also explained that students have no qualms with downloading ‘free’ music. According to the survey, 75 percent of students polled are in favor of illegal downloading.

“Some students believe that music that is paid for is overpriced,” he said.

The RIAA’s punitive approach to addressing illegal music downloading has drawn anger from groups concerned with the rights of internet users. Public Knowledge, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group concerned with individual rights in the digital age, believes that the RIAA’s approach alienates the very consumers that buy its products.

Art Brodsky, communication director for Public Knowledge, said, “It’s certainly not helpful to their customers, but it’s up to their judgment if they think they will come out better.”