Some MP3s and a hard place

It may not shock you that of the colleges and universities the Recording Industry Association of America sent pre-litigation letters to, Northwestern was among the compliant. Administrators took the list of IP addresses linked to illegal file sharing and contacted the corresponding students, most of whom settled with the RIAA for $3,000. While you may think it’s unfortunate that NU chose the route of least liability, it was the best, most fair path the university could have chosen.

The first school to skirmish over student wrongdoing with the RIAA was, perhaps not surprisingly, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a valiant effort that wound its way through federal court, the school claimed the RIAA’s subpoena, issued under one federal copyright law, conflicted with another that protects student privacy. Specifically, MIT argued it didn’t have enough time to serve the student with the subpoena – it gave the school two days to serve the student. And MIT did eventually quash the first subpoena. Then it got another.

It boils down to this: The law is pretty much on the RIAA’s side. Anyone following the news of late knows NU administrators have enough trouble with their existing problems. Getting into an expensive, time-consuming legal tangle with the RIAA probably isn’t the best use of their time, and it would be a losing fight regardless.

Moreover, if the school did choose total non-compliance, it might be held accountable for the full weight of the fines engendered by MP3 traffickers at NU. Those caught got off light, but don’t expect the lenience extended to them by the RIAA to transfer to wealthy institutions like NU. The total fine could have reached into the tens of millions of dollars.

In the end, such a fine would punish all NU students, not just those who illegally share copyrighted files. Imagine if every time a Bobb-McCulloch resident went to the hospital with alcohol poisoning, students in every dorm had to sit through a booze education course.

It’s hard to ignore the impulse to be indignant at the news that NU gave up its students so willingly. But consider the alternatives. It was an inconvenient choice, but it was also the best one the school had.

Virginia Tech, a lesson unlearned

When a masked, rifle-toting freshman roamed their campus last Wednesday, St. John’s University students were alerted early. Within 20 minutes of spotting the gunman, administrators there were shooting e-mails, sending texts and calling students to warn them of the threat.

It’s been six months since the Virginia Tech massacre, and we still don’t know if the same quick response would happen here in a similar scenario. While Northwestern administrators moved with alacrity in the aftermath of that tragedy to gather cell phone numbers from students, we don’t know where the emergency texting plan stands today.

E-mail, the traditional form of mass communication, won’t work in similar circumstances. Students don’t spend their days clicking the refresh button on their e-mail accounts. At the time of the Virginia Tech massacre in April, administrators had undertaken an aggressive push to put in place a text-message notification system. One of the services considered, e2campus, would cost the university a dollar or less per student with a fixed rate of $5,000 for 5,000 users, $9,500 for 10,000 users and $18,000 for 20,000 users per year. Within two weeks of the Virginia Tech incident, 20 universities had signed up.

The question now is: What happened? If there is an emergency texting system in place, we haven’t heard about it. And students definitely should, if only because such texts could be seen as hoaxes or jokes if they aren’t obviously from university officials. So do everyone a favor. Let us know.