Duke University has just announced a significant change of policy related to the RIAA's so-called pre-litigation settlement notices. The music industry has been sending notices of infringement to universities all over the country that just featured the IP address of a suspected infringer.

Duke and many other universities have forwarded these letters to the students in question to give them a chance to settle with the music industry and avoid a costly lawsuit. Well, that's not gonna happen anymore at Duke - unless the record labels prove that any actual infringement occurred. An article in the Duke Chronicle quotes the university's Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta with the following words:

"What we're saying is that in order for us to pass on a settlement letter to a student, we're going to start requiring evidence that someone actually downloaded from that student. If the RIAA can't prove that actual illegal behavior occurred, then we're not going to comply."

This announcement has been received with a kind of muted satisfaction in the P2P community. Good first step, but it won't fundamentally change anything, many seem to think, with the prominent Anti-RIAA lawyer
. I do however think that this announcement is actually kind of a big deal: Read Moneta's words again, and you'll understand that a respected institution like Duke just questioned the validity of music industry's entire lawsuit campaign.

The RIAA's lawsuit are based on the assumption that sharing files online is in itself already an act of distribution, no matter whether people actually download them or not. Duke is however now insisting that the labels submit proof that such downloads actually occurred. And no, they can't just download the MP3s in question themselves, because it has to be a downloaded by a third party, as the Chronicle article explains.

Offering such a proof is technically possible in at least some cases, like for example the first seeder of a BitTorrent swarm, but it would be tough to wage a mass-scale lawsuit campaign against file sharers if it wasn't for the so-called "making available" theory. Critics of the lawsuits have tried to undermine this theory, and they have had at least some success with this in the courts.

Still, most people have so far accepted that sharing files - even accidentally - is the same as distribution actual copies of a work. Duke's announcement is a significant sign that this assumption is increasingly getting challenged.

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