Illegal downloading skyrockets in Ashland

Ashland residents are illegally downloading more movies, TV shows and music — even though they face huge fines and a crackdown by media companies intent on protecting their material.

Working on behalf of movie studio clients, the U.S. Copyright Group, or USCG, sued tens of thousands of people last year for downloading films such as "The Hurt Locker." It has cases pending this year.

Violators face fines of up to $150,000 for each illegal download, although the USCG usually tries to get each offender to pay a few thousand dollars to settle the lawsuit out of court.

The city government-owned Ashland Fiber Network, Charter Communications, Qwest and other telecommunications providers receive a notice when one of their customers has allegedly violated a copyright. AFN's policy is to pass news of the notice on to customers, and to ask people to check a box acknowledging they have allegedly violated AFN's service terms. They also acknowledge that future violations may result in termination of Internet service, said AFN Network Administrator Chad Sobotka.

Customers can send comments to AFN. Some have blamed roommates for illegal downloads, while others said they had wireless Internet at home and hadn't secured it against neighbors with a password. A few have been angry at AFN for sending notices, Sobotka said.

Copyright infringement in Ashland is widespread — and growing.

AFN sent out 54 copyright infringement notices in 2006. Numbers have been skyrocketing since then, with 657 notices sent out in 2010.

While media companies are becoming more aggressive about protecting their products, programs such as BitTorrent have made mass theft and swapping of copyrighted material easy.

Sobotka said parents might not be familiar with the file-sharing programs, but many high schoolers and college students are adept at using them.

Sobotka said a father called him because his high school-age son had received a copyright infringement notice.

"He and his wife were freaking out," Sobotka said. "I had to explain about file-sharing."

Programs such as BitTorrent allow Internet users to band together into swarms of people, who are all downloading and uploading content, such as movies. The swarms can have thousands of users and be international in scope, said Ashland Information Technology Director Rob Lloyd.

"For illegal downloads, the swarms are also its weakness," Lloyd said about BitTorrent and similar programs that are known as peer-to-peer, or P2P, networking services.

Copyright holders monitor the swarms and then send out copyright violation notices to Internet service providers, Lloyd said.

Movie studios are even participating in the swarms by sending out dummy movie files. Then they capture the Internet Protocol addresses of people who are attracted to the bait, Sobotka said.

An Internet Protocol address is the individual number assigned to each computer using the Internet — a bit like a human's Social Security number.

"Most people think their activities are anonymous on the Internet," Sobotka said. "Young people need to know that they can very easily be monitored."

At Southern Oregon University, Coordinator of Student Conduct Casey Clithero said there has been an increase in the number of students running into copyright trouble — possibly because of growing enforcement by copyright holders.

For the previous three school years, he met with four or five students annually about copyright violations.

"This year alone, I've seen nine through the fall term and the first part of winter term," Clithero said.

Warner Bros. has been most active in going after SOU students this year, he said.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act shields SOU from having to reveal their names, but students who engage in illegal downloading do have to have an interview with Clithero.

He emphasizes to them that they could be saddled with hefty legal fines. The students are blocked from being able to log on to SOU's Internet network until they purge the illegal material from their personal computers, Clithero said.

"A lot of them know that they're not supposed to do it, but it's second nature. They can point and click and have something," he said. "They wonder why it's an issue. I've had students say, 'I don't know why it's a big deal. Everyone's doing it.' I tell them, 'If you have friends who are doing it, I suggest you share your experience with them.' "

Clithero added, "I've never had the same person come through twice."

Copyright holders are usually satisfied if a student removes illegal downloads, but a student could become the subject of a lawsuit if the company wants to pursue the issue, warned SOU Network Communications Service Manager David Whipp.

Boston student Joel Tenenbaum has become the poster child for what can go wrong when someone illegally downloads material.

In 2003, Tenenbaum received a copyright infringement notice for downloading songs, with a demand that he pay $3,500 to settle the case. He offered $500, which was rejected, and he landed in court, according to the website he launched to chronicle his travails.

In 2009, a jury returned a verdict against Tenenbaum and awarded $675,000 in damages to several record companies. A judge later reduced that to $67,500.

Tenenbaum has appealed, saying that amount is still excessive, while record companies are arguing the penalty is too light.

Whipp said people who use BitTorrent and other programs to download material unwittingly open their computers to everyone — and become providers of the copyrighted material.

"It's a default setting. It starts sharing from your computer to the rest of the world," he said. "That's where students are surprised."

For students or any other residents who wonder whether they are illegally downloading copyrighted material, Whipp offered a simple rule-of-thumb.

"If you're getting something you would normally expect to have to rent or pay for, that's a red flag. When it comes to movies and music, it's most likely copyrighted and therefore you're putting yourself at risk," he said.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at or 541-479-8199.

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