As many as 53 UW-Madison students could be slapped with lawsuits by the music recording industry after a federal judge on Wednesday ordered the university to surrender their names and other information for sharing digital music files over the Internet.
On Tuesday, 16 record companies represented by the Recording Industry Association of America filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking the names associated with 53 Internet connections for copyright infringement. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge John Shabaz signed an order requiring UW-Madison to relinquish the names, addresses, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and Media Access Control addresses for each of the 53 individuals.
The lawsuit and decision came as no surprise to the university, which last month declined to send out "settlement letters" from the RIAA to alleged copyright violators among UW-Madison students.
"We had every indication that they were going to be going in this direction," said Ken Frazier, interim chief information officer at UW-Madison. "It's the step the RIAA would have to take to get the identity of a user of our network."
The RIAA's "John Doe" lawsuit asks that users associated with the 53 IP (Internet Protocol) address - a series of numbers given to a computer connection on the Internet - be turned over to the record companies named in the lawsuit.
John Doe lawsuits are a routine step that the RIAA takes to learn the identities of those whom it suspects of illegally sharing copyrighted music over the Internet. Generally, RIAA investigators monitor peer-to-peer file-sharing networks - in the UW-Madison case those were the Gnutella and AresWarez networks - and take down the IP addresses of those who are sharing files.
The 53 UW-Madison IP addresses accounted for 24,977 shared audio files, according to court documents.
The RIAA used to directly subpoena the names of those subscribers from Internet service providers, but in 2003 an appeals court ruled that such information could only be obtained under the supervision of a judge. That led to the use of John Doe lawsuits.
But Frazier said that having IP addresses does not mean that the RIAA can find the individuals who were sharing music files. Students share Internet ports and computers, he said, and it's possible that some IP addresses can lead to common areas such as labs.
"There is a very imperfect relationship between an IP address" and a person, Frazier said.
Third-year UW-Madison student Jacob Dalton said that he often downloads free audio files. He lives off campus, mostly using a laptop, but sometimes uses campus computers and networks.
"I'm interested in whether I'd be affected," he said. "If I am, it's kind of scary."
Once the RIAA has the information that UW-Madison has been ordered to supply, it will likely send settlement offers to people it has identified as having illegally shared music over the Internet, often about $3,000. If those offers fail to settle the cases, the RIAA will sue those individuals in federal court to recover money it claims it is owed for the shared music.
Most of the more than 30 file sharing lawsuits heard in the federal court in Madison have ended in default judgments or stipulated settlements. Judgments have ranged between $5,000 and $15,000.
No doubt that price, and the entire process, will be daunting to students, Frazier said.
"We continue to be really concerned for students," he said. "The prospect of being sued in federal court is a really scary one."