In the fall of 2002, Jesse Jordan of Oceanside, New York, enrolled as a freshman at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York. His major at RPI was information technology. Though he is not a programmer, in October Jesse decided to begin to tinker with search engine technology that was available on the RPI network.
RPI is one of America's foremost technological research institutions. It offers degrees in fields ranging from architecture and engineering to information sciences. More than 65 percent of its five thousand undergraduates finished in the top 10 percent of their high school class. The school is thus a perfect mix of talent and experience to imagine and then build, a generation for the network age.
RPI's computer network links students, faculty, and administration to one another. It also links RPI to the Internet. Not everything available on the RPI network is available on the Internet. But the network is designed to enable students to get access to the Internet, as well as more intimate access to other members of the RPI community.
Search engines are a measure of a network's intimacy. Google brought the Internet much closer to all of us by fantastically improving the quality of search on the network. Specialty search engines can do this even better. The idea of "intranet" search engines, search engines that search within the network of a particular institution, is to provide users of that institution with better access to material from that institution. Businesses do this all the time, enabling employees to have access to material that people outside the business can't get. Universities do it as well.
These engines are enabled by the network technology itself. Microsoft, for example, has a network file system that makes it very easy for search engines tuned to that network to query the system for information about the publicly (within that network) available content. Jesse's search engine was built to take advantage of this technology. It used Microsoft's network file system to build an index of all the files available within the RPI network.
Jesse's wasn't the first search engine built for the RPI network. Indeed, his engine was a simple modification of engines that others had built. His single most important improvement over those engines was to fix a bug within the Microsoft file-sharing system that could cause a user's computer to crash. With the engines that existed before, if you tried to access a file through a Windows browser that was on a computer that was off-line, your computer could crash. Jesse modified the system a bit to fix that problem, by adding a button that a user could click to see if the machine holding the file was still on-line.
Jesse's engine went on-line in late October. Over the following six months, he continued to tweak it to improve its functionality. By March, the system was functioning quite well. Jesse had more than one million files in his directory, including every type of content that might be on users' computers.
Thus the index his search engine produced included pictures, which students could use to put on their own Web sites; copies of notes or research; copies of information pamphlets; movie clips that students might have created; university brochures--basically anything that users of the RPI network made available in a public folder of their computer.
But the index also included music files. In fact, one quarter of the files that Jesse's search engine listed were music files. But that means, of course, that three quarters were not, and--so that this point is absolutely clear--Jesse did nothing to induce people to put music files in their public folders. He did nothing to target the search engine to these files. He was a kid tinkering with a Google-like technology at a university where he was studying information science, and hence, tinkering was the aim. Unlike Google, or Microsoft, for that matter, he made no money from this tinkering; he was not connected to any business that would make any money from this experiment. He was a kid tinkering with technology in an environment where tinkering with technology was precisely what he was supposed to do.
On April 3, 2003, Jesse was contacted by the dean of students at RPI. The dean informed Jesse that the Recording Industry Association of America, the RIAA, would be filing a lawsuit against him and three other students whom he didn't even know, two of them at other universities. A few hours later, Jesse was served with papers from the suit. As he read these papers and watched the news reports about them, he was increasingly astonished.
"It was absurd," he told me. "I don't think I did anything wrong. . . . I don't think there's anything wrong with the search engine that I ran or . . . what I had done to it. I mean, I hadn't modified it in any way that promoted or enhanced the work of pirates. I just modified the search engine in a way that would make it easier to use"--again, a search engine, which Jesse had not himself built, using the Windows filesharing system, which Jesse had not himself built, to enable members of the RPI community to get access to content, which Jesse had not himself created or posted, and the vast majority of which had nothing to do with music.
But the RIAA branded Jesse a pirate. They claimed he operated a network and had therefore "willfully" violated copyright laws. They demanded that he pay them the damages for his wrong. For cases of "willful infringement," the Copyright Act specifies something lawyers call "statutory damages." These damages permit a copyright owner to claim $150,000 per infringement. As the RIAA alleged more than one hundred specific copyright infringements, they therefore demanded that Jesse pay them at least $15,000,000.
Similar lawsuits were brought against three other students: one other student at RPI, one at Michigan Technical University, and one at Princeton. Their situations were similar to Jesse's. Though each case was different in detail, the bottom line in each was exactly the same: huge demands for "damages" that the RIAA claimed it was entitled to. If you added up the claims, these four lawsuits were asking courts in the United States to award the plaintiffs close to $100 billion--six times the total profit of the film industry in 2001.
Jesse called his parents. They were supportive but a bit frightened. An uncle was a lawyer. He began negotiations with the RIAA. They demanded to know how much money Jesse had. Jesse had saved $12,000 from summer jobs and other employment. They demanded $12,000 to dismiss the case.
The RIAA wanted Jesse to admit to doing something wrong. He refused. They wanted him to agree to an injunction that would essentially make it impossible for him to work in many fields of technology for the rest of his life. He refused. They made him understand that this process of being sued was not going to be pleasant. (As Jesse's father recounted to me, the chief lawyer on the case, Matt Oppenheimer, told Jesse, "You don't want to pay another visit to a dentist like me.") And throughout, the RIAA insisted it would not settle the case until it took every penny Jesse had saved.
Jesse's family was outraged at these claims. They wanted to fight. But Jesse's uncle worked to educate the family about the nature of the American legal system. Jesse could fight the RIAA. He might even win. But the cost of fighting a lawsuit like this, Jesse was told, would be at least $250,000. If he won, he would not recover that money. If he won, he would have a piece of paper saying he had won, and a piece of paper saying he and his family were bankrupt.
So Jesse faced a mafia-like choice: $250,000 and a chance at winning, or $12,000 and a settlement.
The recording industry insists this is a matter of law and morality. Let's put the law aside for a moment and think about the morality. Where is the morality in a lawsuit like this? What is the virtue in scapegoatism? The RIAA is an extraordinarily powerful lobby. The president of the RIAA is reported to make more than $1 million a year. Artists, on the other hand, are not well paid. The average recording artist makes $45,900. There are plenty of ways for the RIAA to affect and direct policy. So where is the morality in taking money from a student for running a search engine?
On June 23, Jesse wired his savings to the lawyer working for the RIAA. The case against him was then dismissed. And with this, this kid who had tinkered a computer into a $15 million lawsuit became an activist:
I was definitely not an activist [before]. I never really meant to be an activist. ... [But] I've been pushed into this. In no way did I ever foresee anything like this, but I think it's just completely absurd what the RIAA has done.
Jesse's parents betray a certain pride in their reluctant activist. As his father told me, Jesse "considers himself very conservative, and so do I. ...He's not a tree hugger....I think it's bizarre that they would pick on him. But he wants to let people know that they're sending the wrong message. And he wants to correct the record."
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