(Ed. This is the first of a two-part letter about University of Tennessee students, the RIAA and file sharing.)

Chalk up another win for the University of Tennessee. This time we rolled into fourth place in the Recording Industry Association of America’s top five schools responsible for pirating music over the Internet.
But don’t get too worked up over it. It’s a dubious distinction at best, meaning UT was among the top five schools receiving the most allegations of piracy from the RIAA -- not necessarily that UT is bringing down the music industry.
Consider how the RIAA identifies piracy: According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, RIAA investigators cast their nets in file-sharing networks in the hope of catching some pirates. Generally, they look for someone sharing files that appear to be copyrighted. Whether the RIAA verifies that these files indeed contain copyrighted material isn’t actually known.
For example, in 2003 the RIAA sent a threatening letter to Penn State University’s astronomy and physics department accusing someone in the department of illegally sharing songs by the musician Usher. According to CNET News, an RIAA computer had flagged “Usher” and “mp3” while scanning the department’s Web site. Had the RIAA verified the information, it would have only found a Dr. Peter Usher, information about his research on radio-selected quasars and an mp3 of astronomers singing about a research satellite.
Once the RIAA has identified what appears to be a pirate, it records that person’s IP address, which is the Internet’s version of a home address. Using the IP address, the RIAA can track the IP back to an Internet Service Provider. It can then contact the ISP and say that at this date and time, this particular IP address was believed to be used to illegally share music.
Unfortunately, most Internet service providers, whether Comcast or UT, use what is called Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol. In a DHCP environment, IP addresses are not permanent but assigned as the need arises. When you connect to the UT wireless network with your laptop, you receive an available IP address. If you turn off your laptop and connect later on, it’s likely you’ll have a completely different IP address. It’s possible that the person who had your IP address five minutes before or five minutes after you was pirating music. Do you see how this could be a problem?
Even more ambiguously, not everyone even agrees what “piracy” means. Many uses of copyright material that the RIAA has deemed illegal are actually examples of fair use under current U.S. copyright law. Just last year the EFF accused the RIAA of forbidding even the copying of a purchased CD for use on the purchaser’s iPod. Suppose you’re on vacation and you left your favorite CD at home. Is it illegal for you to download music you’ve already purchased?
According to the RIAA, it probably is. But U.S. copyright law would most likely disagree.

Jamie Richard Wilson is a senior in journalism and electronic media. He can be reached at jwilso56@utk.edu.