I Got Caught

Two university students offer their perspectives on getting caught at online piracy, one from the University of Maryland and one from another school.

I Got Caught! — Q&A with a UMD student who was fined for illegal downloading

Sinking a Music Pirate — Account from a university student on being questioned by the FBI and convicted of illegal file sharing

I Got Caught!

“Who ever gets caught?” When it comes to illegal file sharing, this laid-back attitude is familiar among many University of Maryland students. With the ease and convenience of technology, file sharing is one of the most popular ways to stay in tune with the latest music, movies, and television shows. However, despite how cheap it seems to be, one 22-year-old Maryland senior can attest that it could have a steep price tag attached.

In her case, she was the recipient of a DCMA complaint, an email notice from Project NEThics telling her that a copyright owner had detected copyright infringement on her IP address. The notice suggested she remove the downloading program she was using, Ares, from her computer. She complied with this request, but says, “By then it was too late. They [the RIAA] had already been following my IP address.” Later, she also received a letter from the RIAA threatening to sue her for copyright infringement unless she paid a settlement fee. It cited 76 of the 500+ mostly R&B and pop songs she had downloaded. She decided not to take the copyright infringement case to court and paid a $3,000 settlement. This student agreed to be interviewed by TechKnow to warn her fellow students of the possible consequences of online piracy.

Q: How did you feel about having to pay $3,000 for this crime?
A: Horrible at first, but there are worse things that could have happened, and I could have been sued for much more so it’s a learning experience.

Q: Did you tell your parents? If so, what was their reaction?
A: They were the first people I called. They were calm and said they would help out but I would have to pay them back eventually.

Q: Do you mind telling us how you raised the money?
A: I asked for donations from family and friends. [That] raised $1,700 and my parents paid $1,300. I was fortunate enough to have parents who were able to help.

Q: Do you still download?
A: Of course not. My computer is probably tapped or something.

Q: What would you say to students that are currently downloading music?
A: If you are downloading, know that you can get caught, and if you don’t have $3,000 or so to pay for it, you may want to think twice about downloading.

There is a definite possibility that if you are caught downloading illegally you could wind up in the same position this student did. In 2007, the RIAA sent 38 similar letters to users of the university’s computer network. Some have reported paying fines as high as $4,000.

You have the power to prevent a situation like this from happening to you. Be smart — download legally. For more information about online piracy and legal alternatives to it, please visit the PlayFair website at www.it.umd.edu/PlayFair or contact Project NEThics at 301.405.8787 or nethics@umd.edu.


Sinking a Music Pirate

I THOUGHT THAT anything would be better than my early morning Spanish class, but I realized I was wrong on that day two years ago when a campus police officer pulled me out of class to inform me that an FBI agent was waiting for me at my dormitory room.

That was the start of the incident that would become the defining moment of my life so far.

As we drove, with me in the front seat, the officer assured me that it was most likely “not a big deal.” The FBI, which I would later learn maintains its North Carolina office just down the road from my university, comes to campus “all the time.”

There wasn’t just one agent in my dorm room but a team. One stood at the door while another wheeled my computer out on a cart. One wearing a rubber glove dug through my trash while another sorted through my closet.

After sitting me down, the first question of my interview was, Is this the screen name you've been using to communicate on the Internet? It was.

In the previous year, I’d joined a private group on the Web whose purpose was sharing free music. In exchange for providing the group with albums, I was given access to a virtual library. In the few months of my membership, I uploaded a handful of CDs. I had no special industry access, so there was very little I could supply that wasn't already available: albums from local bands without national distribution, free music samplers given out in stores, etc.

I knew it wasn’t right, but the temptation of endless new noise drowned out the ethical whispers. I knew it was illegal, but I never thought I’d face legal troubles. Although my method for obtaining MP3s was different from the common college pirate (who prefers Kazaa, LimeWire, Soulseek or other peer-to-peer systems), the degree of my infringement was similar.

For the authorities to single you out, you have to sell bootlegs, right? Or leak early versions of music before it is publicly available, or something equally serious, right? Wrong.

The series of events in the weeks after the FBI’s visit was as dizzying as it was surreal. I had to find a lawyer; have lengthy, uncomfortable conversations with him in his high-rise office overlooking the city; meet with the dean of students and learn of my punishment on campus (probation, an essay about piracy, exile from student housing and computer labs); and the most intimidating of all: I had to go to the FBI’s office downtown for a video teleconference with higher-ups in Washington.

I’m not even sure who was questioning me while I sat there, twiddling my thumbs and fidgeting with my tie, trying not to look as terrified as I was.

The word to describe it is “shame.” The shame in realizing I'd been monitored for months, with paper logs of my online conversations; the shame of begging my university dean to allow me to remain a student; the shame of continuing to squander such a significant portion of my family’s savings on legal fees; the shame of pleading with professors to reschedule tests; the shame of desperately searching for landlords on short notice; and, of course, the shame of knowing I’d stolen the property of others like me who are passionate about the art of music.

The other word is “fear.” Fear that keeps me awake at night and distracted in class. Fear of my May sentencing date (I pleaded guilty in March) in the same courthouse as Zacarias Moussaoui; fear of the possible prison time I am facing; fear of my job prospects when I graduate college in December with a felony criminal record; and fear for the future I've recklessly damaged.

Everybody wants something for nothing, and I've come to learn that “free” music is anything but. The hidden cost is enormous. Although I am unqualified to opine on the price of piracy for the artists whose work is stolen, I can describe the price I’ve paid.

Stealing, no matter how little, or how easy, is never right. There is no justification for downloading music without paying. I’m not just saying this to reduce my sentence; I want to get the message out to young people who might not otherwise understand — copyright infringement, whether it is buying a bootleg album from a street vendor or downloading a song from the Internet, has very serious consequences.

I regret what I did. I had a lot of music on my PC that I’d never paid for, and now I have an enormous bill I will be paying for years to come. Is piracy worth it? It wasn’t for me.

* This article is reprinted with permission of Mickey Borchardt. Copyright 2006. Originally printed in the Los Angeles Times, "Sinking a Music Pirate," www.latimes.com, April 3, 2006.

UPDATE: After this article was published, Mickey Borchardt was found guilty of conspiracy to infringe federal copyright laws and was sentenced to two years of probation and six months of house arrest with monitoring via an electronic ankle bracelet.