RIAA apologizes for threatening letter

Thursday, 15 May 2003, 11:06 AM EST

The notice and subsequent apology appears to mark the first time that a faulty notification has been made public. The incident also shows just how easily automated programs that search for copyrighted material can be fooled, as well as how disruptive such notices can be on college campuses.

Last Thursday, the RIAA sent a stiff copyright warning to Penn State's department of astronomy and astrophysics. Department officials at first were puzzled, because the notification invoked the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and alleged that one of its FTP sites was unlawfully distributing songs by the musician Usher. The letter demanded that the department "remove the site" and delete the infringing sound files.

But no such files existed on the server, which is used by faculty and graduate students to publish research and grant proposals. Matt Soccio, the department's system administrator, said that he searched the FTP server "for files ending in mp3, wma, ogg, wav, mov, mpg, etc., and found nothing that would precipitate this complaint."

Except, that is, when Soccio realized two things. The department has on its faculty a professor emeritus named Peter Usher whose work on radio-selected quasars the FTP site hosted. The site also had a copy of an a capella song performed by astronomers about the Swift gamma ray satellite, which Penn State helped to design.

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