By AMY HARMON
n the most severe crackdown yet on online piracy at a college campus, the United States Naval Academy has seized 100 computers from students who are suspected of having downloaded unauthorized copies of music files over the Internet.
School officials confiscated the computers when students were in class on Thursday, an academy spokesman said yesterday. Students found to have downloaded copyrighted material could face penalties ranging from loss of leave time to court-martial and expulsion.
The academy was one of 2,300 colleges to receive a letter from entertainment industry organizations last month requesting help in cracking down on unauthorized file swapping. The record industry largely attributes the decline in CD sales over the last 18 months to digital piracy, and has brought increasing pressure on institutions in a position to identify and discipline the downloaders.
" `Theft' is a harsh word," the letter to colleges stated, "but that it is, pure and simple. Students must know that if they pirate copyrighted works they are subject to legal liability."
But one of the groups that sent the letter, the Recording Industry Association of America — perhaps not wanting to appear too single-minded at a time when the nation is poised for a possible war — took pains yesterday to distance itself from the actions of the Naval Academy. The other organizations were the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Music Publishers Association and the Songwriters Guild of America.
"We appreciate institutions who take intellectual property theft seriously," a spokesman for the recording industry association said in a written statement. "However, we do not dictate what their enforcement policies should be, and, in this particular instance, we do not know the facts of the case."
The computer seizures were first reported by The Capital, a newspaper in Annapolis, on Saturday.
Universities have been grappling with how to stem the rapid flow of unauthorized media files across their networks ever since the birth of Napster, the program that popularized file swapping. Students have been quick to take advantage of the free, high-speed connections to the Internet in dormitory rooms to download music and movies, an activity that, in addition to being illegal, has slowed traffic on many university networks.
At the urging of the recording industry, several university associations sent out their own letter last month prompting schools to re-examine their policies on file-sharing activities.
Still, education officials said that most university administrators had limited their measures to mandatory forums on copyright and the temporary suspension of Internet access for students found to be engaging in unauthorized downloading.
"The Naval Academy actions at the moment seem to be a tad more severe than anything we anticipated," said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel of the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization representing 1,800 public and private universities and a co-author of the letter sent out last month.
Military academy officials said the crackdown on copyright violators is driven by their rigorous ethics code, which states that students will not "lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do."
At West Point, a spokesman said network traffic is monitored and students have been disciplined for violating a policy that prohibits unauthorized copying.
"In addition to violating federal copyright law, it also violates our code of honor," the spokesman, Maj. Kent Cassella, said. "Federal copyright law clearly states this is theft, and therefore it is treated as such."
Other schools have resisted monitoring Internet traffic because of academic freedom and privacy issues, education officials said yesterday. But the military academies also have other priorities.
"They hold the midshipman to a higher standard," said a naval officer, who declined to be identified because of the continuing investigation of the students at the academy. "They are the next generation of combat leaders. They can't be allowed to violate federal law and think that it's O.K."