A U.S. district court judge said Wednesday the University of Wisconsin System must release the names and contact information of 53 students accused of illegal file sharing on UW networks.
In a controversial decision last month, UW officials announced they would shield its students from "pre-litigation" settlement letters where students would have been asked to settle outside of court for as much as $3,000.
This week, the Recording Industry Association of America filed a "John Doe" lawsuit with UW for the names corresponding with an Internet Protocol identified in association with "unauthorized peer-to-peer services" like LimeWire.
According to RIAA spokesperson Julie Engebretsen, the 53 "John Does" include students throughout the UW System who could be from Eau Claire, Milwaukee, Parkside, Platteville, Stevens Point, Stout, Whitewater or Madison. The identities will only be known if the RIAA decides to issue subpoenas for the names of the individuals who lawsuits were filed against.
Contrary to other media reports, Engebretsen said all 53 "John Does" are not necessarily UW-Madison students.
Engebretsen said when universities decide not to forward settlement letters to their students they end up harming them by not offering them the opportunity to settle out of court.
"Once we have the name in hand, we are in touch with the student directly to discuss settlement," Engebretsen said. "The substantially discounted sum that was available during pre-litigation is no longer available."
UW Division of Information Technology spokesperson Brian Rust, however, said students with matching IP addresses targeted by the RIAA earlier this year were contacted by UW.
"We gave them a heads-up," Rust said. "We told them, 'You might be the subject of a future subpoena and we would encourage you to talk to your parents and/or legal counsel.'"
Engebretsen said the RIAA is sending pre-litigation letters out in mass quantities every month to large universities with high-volume sharing detected.
Now that the legal process has been invoked, Rust said the university will separate itself from students accused.
"It's an issue that doesn't involve the university. We do have a concern for the students, but if they have broken the law, it's not our place to hide them from prosecution," Rust said. "Every time they issue an action, they say, 'We're coming after you, everybody be aware, we really mean it,' it just kind of continues. Our posture is, 'OK, go ahead.'"
University officials are also raising the question of linking individual students with action in public spaces like libraries.
According to UW Interim Chief Information Officer Ken Frazier, 95 percent of the letters have been directed at students living in dormitories under the ResNet system, and it would be difficult to link files to open sources.
"It becomes a point of distribution, and all the cases are really going to be about sharing the music that's on your computer rather than you downloading," Frazier said. "As I understand it, downloading is nearly impossible to detect."
Engebretsen declined comment on the methodology that RIAA uses to file lawsuits against students, as well as the settlement amounts.