The latest development in the RIAA's long-running filesharing shakedown campaign--demanding colleges and universities forward "pre-litigation" settlement offers to their students--has placed academic institutions in an untenable position. If they don't pass on the letters or even make them available to students, they are arguably harming those students by depriving them of an opportunity to make a better deal. (Though most students are refusing that opportunity.) On the other hand, every letter passed on helps the RIAA save money on litigation costs (which can then go toward suing more people) and avoid judicial oversight of the shakedown process. If you are a university counsel who just received, say, 12 letters, you have to decide who you care about more--those 12 actual students or the hypothetical students that the RIAA will go after in the future? And if you don't pass on the letters, you can just imagine the phone call from the students' parents when their sons and daughters get hit with a lawsuit they could have avoided.

Universities are responding in a variety of ways. The University of Michigan is forwarding the letters to students, along with links to further information to help students evaluate their options and, if need be, seek legal counsel. The University of Wisconsin, by contrast, is refusing to forward the pre-litigation letters. Says Brian Rust of UW's IT department: "These settlement letters are an attempt to short circuit the legal process to rely on universities to be their legal agent." The University of Maine is trying to find some middle ground where it may not exist by choosing to be a p.o. box rather than a delivery service. The university won't forward the letters, but will notify affected students that they can come and pick up the letter at a university office. As UM spokeperson John Diamond put it, "It's not the university's role to, in effect, serve papers on our students for another party."

Perhaps the best approach is the one taken by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. UNL won't be forwarding most of the letters. It can't, because it only retains IP address logs for a month. The school is also demanding reimbursement from the RIAA for the cost of processing the complaints.

University counsel should take heed and talk to their IT departments--perhaps a sensible limited data retention policy could provide a way out of their impossible position. Then they should talk to the RIAA about compensation for the resources that have been wasted on this shakedown campaign.

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