Where the House Nerd Is King 

If the music industry suits could see the piracy that takes place at one Cal housing co-op, they might well have a heart attack.

The guy they call the House Nerd is the recording industry's worst nightmare.

Thanks to him, residents of this UC Berkeley student co-op just north of campus have fast access to countless gigabytes of pirated media. This past summer, they watched The Matrix: Reloaded on the house TV before it hit the theaters. The recent adventure flicks X2, T3, and LXG are embedded in the memory chips of the co-op's computer network, and have been burned to disk for easy viewing. And thousands of music albums, along with many times more individual MP3s, are neatly compiled and categorized in the house's central server.

Students living in this not-to-be-named housing establishment see little need to visit record stores, much less spend their textbook money on legal-download sites such as Listen.com's Rhapsody 2.0 or Apple's iTunes music store.

A culture of unapologetic piracy pervades the place. Walls are covered with murals featuring copyrighted characters from movies and comic books. Individual rooms are decorated with stolen street signs, and if the 261 lawsuits filed against illicit downloaders by the Recording Industry Association of America last month were intended to intimidate, or stop the practice, they clearly failed here.

"Fuck the record industry!" says Allen, a co-op resident whose name has been changed to protect the guilty. He defiantly opens the network drive on his PC, clicks on one of the many server icons, and pulls up the fourteen MP3s that make up Radiohead's new album Hail to the Thief.

This is the RIAA's cold, hard reality, and student co-ops such as this one represent only the tip of it. A study released in July by the Pew Internet Project found that 35 million US adults regularly download music and other media from the Internet using peer-to-peer (P2P) software. Even more alarming for the industry is that 67 percent said they didn't care whether or not the materials are copyrighted.

The most popular P2P programs, which include KaZaA, WinMX, Grokster, and Morpheus, let users browse libraries of files limited only by the number of other users online. Lesser-known programs work just as well. Allen recently found "this new thing" called DC++, a program that works like the big players but feels both faster and stealthier. He now swears by it, having found episodes of a cult favorite TV show, Showtime's Odyssey 5, there and nowhere else.

The House Nerd -- an actual co-op job title, just as other residents serve as a cook or party coordinator -- recently rigged up a central file server with a 300-gig storage capacity. That's the sort of number that gives the RIAA fits. A four-minute song ripped to MP3 at medium-quality takes up about five megabytes of memory. This means the central server can hold about 140,000 pirated songs.

The record industry largely blames file-sharing for an estimated $7 billion in lost revenues since 2000, when Napster took the world by storm. Since Napster's fall in the summer of 2001, digital piracy has only become easier, more popular, and harder to track. ZeroPaid.com, one of many file-sharing "information portals," identifies no fewer than 86 programs that give people free access to otherwise-costly media.

Although some recording artists are losing revenues, co-op residents figure their favorite bands are already well-established, and will survive if a few less people buy their albums. And with new CDs typically retailing for $15 to $20, many students see it as an affordability issue. "If CDs were like $10 or $12, I'd buy so many more than I do now, even with P2P still available," says Allen, who blames the industry for inflating retail costs. "If the record companies weren't so greedy, I would buy a lot more music."

Universal Music Group recently responded to this common rationalization by saying it would lower prices almost 30 percent so that its CDs would retail for $12.98. But just last week the major label balked at specifying the retail price after stores complained they couldn't afford the lower sales margins.

Meanwhile, Allen gets nearly all his music off the house network -- there are more than 1,200 songs on his own hard drive, which he plays at random while working. But when it comes to actually burning a CD copy of Hail to the Thief, he refrains. Even digital music thieves, it appears, have their ethical boundaries, and Radiohead is a band Allen says he'll support. "I'll go out and buy their CD," he says. "I like having the art and liner notes, and besides, if they produce good music, I'm willing to pay for it."

The RIAA filed its lawsuits in part because its members feel few listeners will make this distinction. And while few students were caught up in last month's dragnet, the trouble is far from over. "They should not feel shielded, not if they're downloading or sharing music," says Jonathan Lamy, a spokesman for the industry trade group. "There's a misconception that individuals can't be identified. We can find out who you are. We can and will hold you accountable."

The record industry is offering file-sharers another way out. Its Clean Slate program allows anyone not already being subpoenaed or investigated to apply for amnesty from the RIAA lawsuits. Applicants can mail in a notarized form giving their identity, e-mail and physical addresses, and names of the songs they've downloaded, along with a promise to delete the files and not share or download any more music.

But critics of the amnesty program believe it increases people's odds of getting sued. "We actually think there are risks involved in the Clean Slate program," says Gwen Hinze, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which refers to it as the "shamnesty" program, because it doesn't actually protect file-sharers from lawsuits. "There are two copyright owners for any piece of music, and neither of them is the RIAA," she points out. They are the record labels and the songwriters, neither of whom are mentioned in the amnesty agreement.

RIAA spokesman Lamy says the trade group has crafted a policy against revealing the amnesty information. Read the fine print, Hinze counters -- it says the RIAA will release the data if subpoenaed, a nearly inevitable outcome in the file-sharing wars.

The music industry, Hinze points out, has students in its crosshairs. One Cal senior was among those sued last month, and four other students from colleges back East settled file-sharing lawsuits this past April for between $12,000 and $17,000 apiece. The industry has also subpoenaed universities for information on alleged file-sharing activities of an estimated 1,500 students, and has sent warning letters to 2,300 schools outlining media piracy on their campuses.

The young rebels at this Cal co-op figure all this industry tough stuff is likely to backfire, just as the RIAA suit against Napster brought file-sharing into the public consciousness. "Every time they pull a boneheaded move like this, traffic seems to go up," Grokster president Wayne Rosso told the San Francisco Chronicle two days after the suits were filed.

Another co-op resident -- call her Beth -- may be a prime example. She's never actually gotten music off the Net. Instead, she relies on her house's extensive library to fill her hard drive. But the recent lawsuits, she says, might make her a culprit after all. "It makes me want to download more -- just to stick it to them," she says. "And also in case they do shut it down, I want to get it while I can."

And get it they do: Last weekend, some of the students screened The Hulk, a widely panned Hollywood blockbuster that still earned more than $130 million at the box office. Copied from the house network and burned to CD, Allen and Beth watched it in the co-op lounge. "It was pretty fucking bad," Allen says. "I wouldn't pay $8.50 for that. I wouldn't even rent it."

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