More than 80 percent of UB students admit to torrenting despite consequences
Torrenting, peer-to-peer or file sharing – whatever you call it – is easy, illegal and popular among UB students.
Although torrenting on campus won’t bring the police knocking at your dorm room door, you may receive an email warning from UB’s Computer Discipline Officer.
Michael Behun, the computer discipline officer for the past eight years, manages copyright infringement complaints handed down by various agencies. Most complaints are from students illegally downloading music, movies, TV shows and, recently, textbooks. Students who are caught are required to take an online class, aimed to teach them about copyright laws. Student violators are rarely referred to Student-Wide Judiciary, the on-campus court system used to discipline students.
Students continue using torrents, despite the prevalence of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus. UB has a system in place to catch and punish torrent users, but not all get caught.
A poll of 212 UB students showed that more than 80 percent admit to torrenting. Of the students who used torrents, 79.8 percent said they got away with it without any negative repercussions.
Companies like Sony Entertainment hire an outside agent to catch people who illegally download their movies.
“The University receives hundreds of complaints each year,” Behun said. “A few years ago we weren’t seeing any [textbook complaints], that kind of material wasn’t out there.”
Behun said in 2014, UB received more than 1,800 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) complaints. So far this year, they have already received just over 200 complaints.
When caught torrenting, an email warning is sent to the UBIT name of the offender. The offender is then enrolled in a UBlearns copyright class they must complete within a week. Should the student complete the class on time and remove the torrenting software and copyrighted material, the case is closed.
“While most people receive an individual notice, some receive multiple copyright complaints in a single day,” Behun said in an email. “As a result, 162 UBIT names were added to a UBlearns copyright class so far in 2015. Each year, we have only a few students that may be referred to the Student Judiciary. Most students understand the risks of using file-sharing programs to infringe on copyright and are never referred to Student Judiciary.”
If it is a second-time or a higher offense, the punishment is then handed off to the Student-Wide Judiciary. Behun said only a few students are referred to UB’s judicial extension.
“These agencies look for the download of certain files at certain times across a number of IP addresses,” Behun said.
UB acts as an Internet Service Provider, or ISP, for the campus. Due to this classification they get what is called “Safe Harbor” under the DMCA. As long as UB makes attempts and acts on any complaints it receives, they cannot get in trouble for violations made by the students.
But UB is not catching every student who torrents on campus.
“I definitely torrented a couple things, but I didn’t use [campus] wifi,” said Phil Shar, whose name was changed to protect his anonymity. “I used my own hotspot and torrented from there because Buffalo chases after you. My roommate got caught four or five times. They just kept giving him the course over and over again. They never investigated anything.”
With only a fraction of torrenters getting caught, the penalty doesn’t outweigh the convenience for many students. But Behun doesn’t see the UBlearns course as punishment.
“While some persons may view the requirement to complete this 20 minute course as disciplinary, it is designed as educational,” Behun said. “My goal is to provide information on the risks of copyright infringement to help students protect themselves.”
Torrenting wasn’t always the file sharing method of choice for UB students.
Students once used a campus-only file sharing system that had movie and music files in shared folders on the campus network called, ResNet. This allowed students to copy what they wanted and download it.
Originally, students had to search through thousands of folders and files on ResNet. Eventually, one student wrote a program that indexed the entire library of media throughout ResNet, making it searchable.
The school knew about the site but didn’t take it down until complaints surfaced.
While ResNet is no longer an option for file sharing for UB students, there are many other choices.
The Piratebay, a popular torrent-hosting site, is a viable option for students. Despite being taken down often, it comes back – usually under an altered address.
Torrents can have numerous sources and multiple locations where a file is stored. A user is connected to many other machines and those machines each contribute a small portion of the file.
Torrenting differs from downloading a song off iTunes. A conventional download starts when a user makes a request, like purchasing a song. Then, the user connects to a single server that contains the file of the song. The file is downloaded through the Internet to the user’s machine. This is called a Client-Server model.
Peer-to-peer sharing uses a number of machines acting as servers of the file. For example, Machine A might send 1 minute of a song and Machine B sends another minute. In bigger files, such as a movie, one might connect to more than 100 different machines all contributing small parts of a whole file.
“I use torrent because it’s easy and free,” said Bobby Asher, whose name has been changed to protect his anonymity. “I can download an entire album all at once, and the quality is better [than converting from Youtube].
Thomas Johnson, whose name was changed to protect his anonymity, admits that in the past when he didn’t have a job, he downloaded music illegally, but hasn’t done so for years.
But what is most convenient and cheapest today might not be what’s most convenient tomorrow, according to Behun.
“As network speeds increase torrents will become less useful,” Behun said.
Companies and consumers seem to be catching on.
In the past few years many companies turned to streaming to distribute content. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are popular video streaming services and Spotify, Pandora and Google Play stream music to millions of people.
The popularity of these services marks a shift in entertainment culture. Consumers are increasingly willing to pay for the convenience of on-demand content.
While torrenting seems to be popular among students, a survey of 2,500 BitTorrent users, a popular torrent site, found that a majority still purchased content legally on a regular basis. Half of the site’s users said they purchased music each month and 52 percent bought movies, according to the BitTorrent User Survey.
BitTorrent’s global users spend $48 per year on music and $54 on movies, according to BitTorrent Blog.
Students are enticed to use streaming services through special offers. Amazon and Spotify both offer reduced pricing for college students. HBO Go is now available to students living on campus.
Until torrenting becomes less convenient than streaming services, it’s likely students will use it as a preferred method for getting entertainment. After all, torrents are free and just a few clicks away.
Jordan Oscar and Tori Roseman contributed reporting to this story
David Dressner is an arts staff writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org