Originally published at The Daily Princetonian on Oct. 22, 2012.
By the time one student entered sophomore year, file-sharing had become a common personal practice. This student used BitTorrent — a file-sharing client with a reputation of being the fastest way to download large files — to download movies over a home wireless network. But using BitTorrent on the University’s Internet got the student caught.
“I got an email a couple days later,” said the student, who was granted anonymity due to the nature of the incident. “It was my first time at Princeton [using BitTorrent] and pretty much my last time.”
The email came from OIT Senior Policy Adviser Rita Saltz, the University’s copyright compliance officer. It explicitly laid out the charge: An agent from Columbia Pictures alleged that just two days earlier, the student’s computer had “made available for unauthorized distribution to the Internet via BitTorrent” a copy of a recently released film.
Columbia Pictures had traced the “unauthorized copying or distribution” to a University IP address and filed a complaint with Saltz, who is the designated contact for such complaints from industry groups under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.
OIT network logs showed that the student’s computer was using that IP address at the time of the alleged infringement.
“[The film] still is playing in first-run movie theaters,” the email read. “Therefore it seems implausible that you could have a legal copy of the film on your computer. However, if by some unusual circumstance you actually do have a legal copy on your computer, even then, you are obliged under copyright law to protect the file from access by others.”
Saltz declined to comment for this story.
In the 2011-12 school year, 123 students came before the Committee on Discipline for violating the University’s policies on copyright infringement, according to the most recent University Discipline Report. Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Victoria Jueds said the vast majority of these cases were first-time offenders who had been downloading TV episodes or movies.
Jueds said a first-time offense usually results in a Dean’s Warning. Dean’s Warnings do not affect a student’s status at the University and do not appear on official records, but are taken into account in the case of future violations. Second-time offenses merit a term of disciplinary probation, and third-time offenders will have their campus Internet connectivity cut off for a period of weeks.
“As you can imagine, that’s a massive inconvenience for the busy student,” Jueds said of the latter punishment.
Nevertheless, the University does not actively patrol its networks looking for violations, according to University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua. Because it is classified as a “service provider” under the DMCA, the University itself is immune from a lawsuit as long as it quickly makes sure that students remove unauthorized content from their devices.
Patrolling and monitoring is the responsibility of the rights-holders — in these cases, companies like Columbia Pictures, NBC Universal and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Each of these companies has filed such copyright infringement claims with students in the last year, according to emails from implicated students provided to The Daily Princetonian.
The rights-holders contract anti-piracy watchdog companies to monitor for violations. These companies then send Saltz these notices on their behalf. Each email to Saltz from a monitoring group contains detailed technical information on the alleged infringement, including a timestamp, the name of the method of upload used, the name and size of the illegally obtained file and the infringer’s IP address.
The exact methods used by these monitoring groups are not publicly known. Irdeto Intelligence — formerly known as BayTSP — is a monitoring group that has caught many University students, according to email records. It uses “piracy-network crawling software and databases of digital fingerprints of media” to track downloads, according to a 2009 article in The Tech, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology student newspaper.
Representatives from Irdeto did not respond to a request for comment.
Then-BayTSP spokesperson told The Tech in 2009 that the company compiles raw data for “nearly every motion picture studio, a good number of software companies, video game and publishing companies and an increasing number of sports and pay-per-view companies.”
While the University attempts to regulate illegal downloads by directing students to remove illegal files and giving Dean’s Warnings to first-time offenders, industry groups have sued students in more serious cases.
In cases where industry groups determine that litigation is appropriate, they send subpoenas to the University asking for the names associated with the IP addresses of the parties they intend to sue.
In the last two years, there have been no such subpoenas issued to the University requesting the names of students, according to Mbugua.
In 2003, Daniel Peng ’05 was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America for operating a website called “Wake” at wake.princeton.edu that allowed campus network users to search for and obtain music illegally. Two years later, the RIAA sued 25 students for illegally trading files on Internet2, a research network shared by university campuses nationwide.
Despite the threat of lawsuits and further disciplinary action, the Dean’s Warning hasn’t stopped the anonymous student from obtaining television, movies and music illegally. Torrenting was convenient at the time because it was the fastest method, the student explained, but other methods, especially streaming, are now more convenient.
“I’ve been streaming ever since,” the student said.