Many Binghamton University students returning to campus for the start of this school year noticed something amiss: the popular file-sharing program “DC++,” which allowed students to freely download music, TV shows and movies — regardless of who owned copyright on such files — was not working.

Access to DC++ on BU computer networks was blocked by the University over the summer.

DC++ worked by requiring that new users share media stored on their computers through the program.

Mark Reed, associate vice president for Information Technology Services (ITS) at BU, said that the DC++ technology was not itself illegal, but that the University had concluded it was being used primarily for improper sharing of copyrighted material.

“I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with the programs themselves,” Reed said. “But the general consensus is that an overwhelming amount of the material downloaded is copyrighted.”

Reed stressed that the University does not desire to limit the sharing of legal files for academic purposes.

“We certainly recognize that there are legitimate and academic reasons for this program,” Reed said. “If someone calls the help desk and explains why they need to do something, [ITS] can open the firewall.”

One BU student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the potential for legal action against him, said he used DC++ two or three times per week to download movies and songs.

“I liked that there was a big selection of media, and it was very quick and easy to use,” the student said.

Reed said a significant factor in the University’s decision to block access to DC++ was new provisions on “peer-to-peer” file sharing that were added by Congress last year to the Higher Education Opportunity Act.

These provisions stipulate that universities notify students of the legal risks of illegal downloading, examine technological methods of blocking downloading and make sure that there are legal alternatives to illegal downloading available.

Reed said the University also wanted to protect students from having to face legal action from copyright holders like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

“It seemed to us that students kind of aren’t aware that when they enable this software on their machine they’re advertising to the world that they have this content on their computer,” Reed said.

The University received more than 700 complaints last year from the RIAA against students, a significant increase from previous years, when it averaged about 200 complaints.

The RIAA’s website makes it clear that the recording industry is serious about pursuing legal remedies against illegal downloading.

“A long series of court rulings has made it very clear that it’s against the law both to upload and download copyrighted music without permission,” the website states. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with sound recordings, pictures, software or written text. The courts have consistently ruled that many peer-to-peer (P2P) programs and other unauthorized uploading and downloading inherently amount to copyright infringement and therefore constitute a crime.”

Reed said that when ITS receives a complaint about a particular IP address — a number which identifies an individual computer — downloading copyrighted material, it does not reveal to the complainant the identity of the student to whom the computer belongs, but it informs the student that there was a complaint against him or her.

“We send the letter back and say, ‘We’re not going to be your agent in this,’ but we pass on that the letter has come to the student,” Reed said.

If a copyright holder chooses to legally pursue the user of an IP address that downloaded copyrighted material, the holder can obtain a subpoena to legally compel the University to provide its records. Students indicated therein can then be subject to sizeable fines or lengthy, expensive legal battles.

Reed said that the RIAA asked at least two Binghamton students to pay $5,000 fines, and that at least one of the students paid the fine.

ITS has spent a significant amount of time and resources dealing with the many copyright infringement complaints made against students at a time when the department is already strained by budget cuts, which led to layoffs, according to Reed. He said he hoped that the number of complaints this year would decline now that access to DC++ is blocked.

“With a lot fewer complaints, there will be much less work to do, and students won’t be advertising that they have copyrighted material on their computer,” he said.

But some students on campus are now finding other ways to share media like music and movie files.

“[There is] a program called Alliance,” the student who did not wish to be identified said. “DC++ required users to connect to a server to share content. Alliance allows users to connect directly to each other, without connecting to a server first.”

It remains to be seen whether Alliance will become as popular as DC++, or whether the University will take steps to end its usage as well.