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RIAA Admits Piracy Goof

Penn State professor among two dozen incorrectly targeted

May 14, 2003 12:00 AM ET

The Recording Industry Association of America sent out more than two dozen letters on Monday apologizing for incorrectly targeting institutions suspected of posting copywritten music on their servers. The RIAA said the erroneous notices were the result of an error by an unnamed temporary employee.

One of the undue warnings arrived last Thursday at Penn State University, accusing professors of illegally posting songs by R&B singer Usher on a university-hosted FTP site. It turns out that the RIAA's automated Web crawlers had mistakenly zeroed in on and linked an MP3 of an a cappella song by a group of astronomers about the Swift gamma ray satellite and papers posted by an astrophysics professor emeritus named Peter Usher.

"When this matter was brought to our attention, we immediately began an examination of other notices this particular temp. employee reviewed," read a statement from RIAA spokesperson Jonathan Lamy. "If we have found errors, we immediately contacted the appropriate person and withdrew the notice."

Though the errors pointed out how easily automated programs can be fooled by random combinations of seemingly copyright-infringing words (in this case, "MP3" and "Usher"), the RIAA maintains that of the thousands of notices it has sent out over the past five years, these latest errors were the first of their kind.

The raft of apologies were the first admissions by the RIAA of mistaken copyright violation notifications. Citing privacy issues, Lamy would not name the other individuals or institutions that received error notices.

Penn Sate spokesperson Tysen Kendig said the university has accepted the RIAA's apology and will continue to work with the organization to combat the illicit trading of copyrighted material. Penn State President Graham Spanier testified before Congress on online piracy issues in February and, along with RIAA president Cary Sherman, is co-chair of the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities, which is examining ways to reduce peer-to-peer network abuse on campuses.

As for Professor Usher, Lamy says that for his trouble the RIAA intends to send him an Usher CD and T-shirt.

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