Last Thursday, the Phynd indexing service was shut down by Dean of Students Mark Smith after he had been notified by the Recording Industry Association of America that if he did not do so, legal action would be pursued against the service. Smith directed junior Bryant Eadon, Phynd administrator, to “remove Phynd software immediately and cease and desist from operating any related version that violates Rensselaer policies on electronic citizenship.” While many contend that the service is not illegal, Eadon shut down the site and it has been replaced with message boards for students to voice their opinions on the issue.
“The law’s the law, and you can quibble about whether it’s right or wrong, but we’re obligated to enforce it,” Smith said. “My primary interest is to keep the students out of harm’s way, and if that means closing down the access, so be it.”
Phynd has been evolving at RPI for several years. In its current incarnation, the service indexed all the shares of any computer that had “opted in,” that is, used the service and therefore agreed to join. In its first version, the software indexed every share on campus, but was later restricted to certain network subnets. Many of the changes were triggered by RPI network administrators concerned about network load and security on administrative computers.
Many students and others felt that while the service could be used to transfer copyrighted material, it did not discriminate between files it indexed and therefore could not be responsible for any copyright infringement. However, Eadon has discovered that his service did not satisfy certain requirements, and has been investigating how to comply.
“The service may come back up, but that’s a big may,” he speculated. “It may come back, it may not. It may be under a different name, it may be a different service.”
According to Eadon’s statement of intent on the Phynd website, the service is “not intended for the purpose of downloading copyrighted material,” but is instead merely designed to “speed up the search process which is tedious on many Windows-based operating systems.”
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act has certain “safe harbor” provisions for search engines, designed to prevent the engine from being accused of permitting illegal file sharing. The requirements boil down to the need for a “copyright officer” whose responsibility it would be to remove copyrighted material from the database when it is found.
“The DMCA makes it very hard to comply for small-time search engines. The limiting factor is really the administrative work” said Eadon. “The $30 [to register a copyright officer] is minimal, but there’s a lot of crap to deal with.”
The Phynd service was receiving about 12,000 to 13,000 hits a day until it was shut down, but when the forums were posted late Monday, the site received 37,000 hits in one day. Unfortunately, Eadon said, very few people are participating in the discussion.
“It seems that a lot of people just don’t want to be associated with comments they make, with the RIAA suing people left and right,” he said.
Eadon said he has also been receiving letters from students. While the number is not large, it is still a lot more than expected, he said.
Smith and Eadon are currently discussing the possibility of holding a forum on the issue between interested students, network administrators, and knowledgeable lawyers. Smith said the idea was proposed last year when two students were sued for similar reasons, but did not develop further. Eadon proposed possibly re-examining RPI’s policy on electronic citizenship and its copyright sections, and possibly having RPI hire a copyright officer to handle all the search engines that students set up.