To avoid the rising costs of purchasing new music, students often turn to illegal music downloads or online players like Pandora or Spotify. However, for those who torrent or participate in peer-to-peer file-sharing, the consequences can be severe.
This spring semester, rising College junior Dillon Schriver torrented multiple movies and television series, “but it was a bad torrent so Warner Bros. tracked everyone’s IP addresses,” he said. The company contacted the University and then Schriver himself.
“But nothing happened since you need multiple warnings” to receive disciplinary action, Schriver said. “I’ve heard of people who had worse [punishment].”
Copyright holders, rather than Penn, drive the allegations and enforcement, said Jim Choate, Information Technology executive director of Information Systems and Computing. According to Penn Computing, those found liable for civil copyright infringement may be charged damages between $750 to $30,000 per work infringed.
Violators are subject to disciplinary action by the Office of Student Conduct, including a possible notation in their academic record and a loss of network privileges and access.
“Penn proactively monitors its networks for malicious or disruptive activity,” Choate said. “We do not examine the content of Penn’s internet traffic unless it is in the specific context of investigating an active incident,” such as an emergency or a suspected violation of law.
During his sophomore year, rising Engineering senior Vivek Sharma downloaded two movies off The Pirate Bay, a torrenting website, about two months apart. Approximately two months after downloading each of the movies, he received notices from Time Warner, Inc. and Universal Studios that were forwarded to him by Penn’s IT department.
“When you download a torrent, someone from the movie studios also downloads it at the same time,” Sharma said. “By downloading it, they get a list of all the IP addresses of the ‘peers’ downloading at the same time.”
When the two companies found Sharma’s IP address, they warned Penn, the owner, that any further download or upload “should be suspended immediately,” he said.
According to Sharma, Penn IT was able to look up his PennKey from the IP address and cautioned that disciplinary actions would be taken if two violations occurred.
As a result, Sharma had to meet with the OSC five months later. He and several other students spoke to an officer and signed agreements that stated they admitted to downloading files illegally. In addition, the students had to choose between paying $100 and performing five hours of community service or performing 10 hours of community service. If the students chose one of those options, the violations would not show up on their academic records.
According to Sharma, he signed the agreement and chose the latter option, waiving his right to have a real academic hearing in which his actions would be tried just like any other University crime.
“Now that I think back on it, I shouldn’t have signed the agreement to waive my right to a hearing and admit to having downloaded the content,” he said. “The rules behind the ISC Internet Terms of Service are very vague and have lots of loopholes in them, as do agreements that the Office of Student Conduct generates.”
Sharma added that Penn “has no means of associating any internet traffic to your PennKey” by itself.
“If they did, that would be against their terms of service and an invasion of privacy,” he said.
In rare cases, Penn associates internet traffic with PennKeys — but only after obtaining valid court orders after consultation with the University Council, Choate added.
The number of takedown notices and subpoenas that Penn receives is considered confidential and is not available to the public.