RIAA Drops a Bollock - Part II

By Jon Newton 5/17/03

The fascinating, and revealing, ding-dong between Penn State U and the RIAA, has taken on profound new meaning. And, says David DeKok in Pennsylvania's The Patriot-News, it's left a PSU computer systems administrator angry and a retired professor bewildered over how he got dragged into the dispute.

The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) blamed a temporary secretary after it sent a threatening letter to the university, for, it said, having an illegal Usher song on the public computer server at the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics in State College.

But there's more than one Usher. There's Edgar Allan Poe's House of Usher, for example. Then there's Mount Usher Gardens in Wicklow, Ireland. And there's also Peter Usher, a retired Penn faculty member.

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And guess what? The RIAA's scanning software had apparently zeroed in on the latter's research files, together with a single mp3 file that turned out to be the song 'Swift' by the Chromatics, "an astronomy-themed group whose members mostly work at the Goddard Space Center in Maryland," as David points out, and, "The song extols the Swift Gamma Ray Burst Satellite that Penn State helped to design."

The RIAA balls-up also had the potential to interfere with Hubble Space Telescope funding applications.

But Whoa!!! Back up. RIAA scanning software? Do dat mean it's taken a page out of Warner Bros' book? And do dat mean it's surreptitiously looking at private files?

Regular readers will recall that MediaFarce is a hired Warner Bros Internet security firm which uses its software to automatically scan p2p nets for "copyrighted works". When it finds file-sharers' IP addies, it contacts the ISP or block owner involved and the downloader gets a 'Stop it or Else' notice.

But Gosh Golly NO!, said RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy. No invasion of privacy was involved because the RIAA scans only public servers to which anyone has access, David's report states, continuing that Penn State spokesman Tysen Kendig, "laughed it off and called it 'an honest mistake'."

(Kendig also said he wasn't aware of any involvement in the dispute by Barry Robinson, a Penn State Board of Trustees member and a lawyer for the RIAA.)

In the meanwhile, Penn State systems administrator Matt Soccio had to deal with the RIAA threat, but didn't find it nearly as amusing, said the David's article, continuing:

"For him, the nightmare began last Thursday, just as he was preparing to go home. An e-mail arrived from Laurie Walters of PSU Security Operations and Services notifying him that the RIAA had complained about an illegal Usher download on the departmental server and threatened to sue.

"Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, the RIAA needs only a "good faith" belief that a server contains illegal music downloads to demand that they be removed.

"Walters notified Soccio that, per Penn State policy, all connections to the departmental server would be severed in 24 hours unless the offending material was removed. Cutting off the server would have had a devastating impact on students and faculty.

" 'I had never received one of these before'," Soccio said. 'I didn't know the letter of the law, so I jumped. We were in the middle of finals and two weeks away from the deadline for Hubble Space Telescope funding applications. So I got on the server and couldn't find what they were talking about.'

"After Soccio complained to the RIAA, he received a personal apology from Jonathan Whitehead, an RIAA official who declined comment. The RIAA also said in its e-mailed statement that it will send an Usher CD and T- shirt to Peter Usher "in appreciation of his understanding."

"The retired astronomy professor, reached at his home in North Carolina, knew nothing of the dispute or of the CD and T-shirt coming his way. Usher expressed bewilderment that he had been caught up in the dispute.

" 'I'm aghast," he said. "Just because my name is the same?' "

"Soccio said he has removed the Chromatics song about the Swift satellite from the departmental server, even though the singers had no problem with their song being on the server."

Apparently, Padi Boyd, an astrophysicist and music director for the Chromatics who wrote "Swift," said she's amazement that an organization as large as the RIAA depends so much on automated computer scans of public servers like the one at Penn State, and also, "expressed support for music downloading".

Jon Newton is the editor of p2pnet.net and is a regular contributer to MP3 Newswire. Jon's site is devoted to the politics of digital music and his insights as well as those of his co-writers can be read there. We urge you to explore it.

The new 15GB and 30GB Apple iPod can be ordered from Amazon.


Other MP3 stories:
Nielsen/NetRatings: file traders buy music
File Traders in Court.

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