While the battle over file-sharing continues unabated on college campuses across the country, University of Maine officials have offered a new stance: they’re going to protect their own. Federal privacy laws, they say, prevent them from putting record-industry lawyers in touch with 27 students alleged to have illegally downloaded music.

As a result, the University of Maine System, comprising seven schools, has joined a small number of other universities who have stood up to the recording industry. Meanwhile, the majority of US schools — such as Ohio University (which is believed to have the largest number of illegal student downloaders) — have caved in to industry pressure, passing along letters from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to students accused of having pirated music.

In late March, UMaine notified students that they can pick up RIAA letters sent to the school, if they wish, from an office on campus. Yet the university has refused to tell the RIAA who the students are, citing provisions in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law limiting access to student records.

“FERPA prohibits us from giving out information about students that would link them to any identification numbers,” says John Diamond, spokesman for the UMaine System. “It is up to the students to decide whether to take advantage of the settlement option put forth by the RIAA in the letters,” he adds.

In those letters, students are directed to the Web site p2plawsuits, where they may settle their cases online. Though that settlement fee is unspecified, the RIAA claims it is “generally lower” than the roughly $3000 settlement demand that the association makes in court filings.

So far, the RIAA has both won (Elektra vs. Perez) and lost (Elektra vs. Santangelo) court cases taken up against alleged copyright infringers. And, given a recent Wall Street Journal report claiming CD sales are down by 20 percent in the first three months of this year, it seems likely the RIAA will continue to fight against online music sharing.

But is the treat of lawsuits an actual deterrent? According to a recent study published in the Journal of Political Economy, there were nearly 10 million simultaneous users on the major peer-to-peer (P2P) networks in 2006. Plus, about 60 million people have accessed P2P networks since their inception.

Still, there may be hope for an end to this ongoing battle. In the early 20th century, a similar fight raged between songwriters and radio stations that played songs without paying royalties. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers tried suing the radio stations, but ultimately found middle ground with Voluntary Collective Licensing. As a result, radio stations agreed to pay fees to record companies in exchange for rights to play whatever they liked from their labels.

The digital-rights nonprofit Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) has suggested a similar measure for people who make music files available on P2P networks. That is, one would pay a small fee to have full access to a label’s catalog, with the option to download and make available any songs. (The EFF suggests $5 per month — significantly less than the cost of a settlement, yet pure profit for the recording label).

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