University of Manitoba students receive 'extortion' letters over illegal downloads

Thousands of students at the University of Manitoba have received copyright infringement letters that the school says amount to “extortion.”

School is fighting back, advising students they have the option to not respond

Thousands of students at the University of Manitoba have received copyright infringement letters. The school says students always have the option not to respond to the letters. (The Canadian Press)

Thousands of students at the University of Manitoba have received copyright infringement letters, some of which the school says amount to "extortion."

Joel Guénette, the University of Manitoba's copyright strategy manager, said students should know their options when they receive notices warning their IP address is connected to illegal downloads.

The notices, sent by copyright enforcement companies such as IP-Echelon and CEG TEK International, call out specific IP addresses for illegal downloads of everything from textbooks to pornography, television shows and movies.

The purpose of the notice system, which began in earnest in Canada in 2015 when new copyright laws came into effect, is to discourage piracy — not to get cash. But some anti-piracy companies have been sending letters to suspected pirates, asking them to pay a settlement fee.

While many students ignore the warnings, others have paid hundreds to companies, worried they might suffer stiffer penalties in the future if they don't.

"It's a tad frustrating when we see some of the messages that have content that really borders on extortion," said Guénette.

He is asking students to consider not responding to the letters because if they do, the companies will find out their names and potentially pursue more money in the future.

"I would certainly think long and hard before responding directly to the rights holder," he said.

Under Canada's new copyright laws, the University of Manitoba, as the internet service provider on campus, has been obligated to forward about 6,000 copyright infringement notices to students for downloading illicit files on campus.

In the past, Guénette said, the school simply discarded the notices, but under the new legislation, the university must forward them to students — otherwise the school risks facing massive fines.

Letters spark fears, U of M official says

Guénette said students feel threatened when they get the warning letters.

"I have students that come to me and ask, 'Am I going to lose my scholarship? Am I going to lose my visa? Am I going to be deported? Are you going to tell my parents?'" he said.

"And all of these questions are a tad heartbreaking, because they're really outside of the sphere of the possible consequences of the types of copyright violations that are being alleged."

Guénette said the anti-piracy companies do not know students' names; they only have access to IP addresses. Only the University of Manitoba knows the names of students associated with the IP addresses connected to alleged illegal downloads.

"We are essentially the middle link in that three-part chain, and we keep that information private," he said.

Guénette said it's common for students to be threatened with multimillion-dollar lawsuits, especially when the content is pornographic or "perhaps more of a sensitive nature," he said. The maximum fine for copyright violation in Canada is $5,000.

What's more, students who have already paid money to the companies may risk being asked to pay more in the future. The so-called settlements do not often settle anything, he said.

"There is no evidence that I have seen that shows that the notices stop once payment has taken place," Guénette said.

More than 6 million notices last year

Canadian Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement (Canipre), a company that sends copyright infringement notices on behalf of copyright holders, said it sent out more than six million anti-piracy notices last year.

"Everyone has the right to seek restitution before something becomes a legal matter," said Barry Logan, the company's managing director.

Canipre has provided rights holders with more than $500,000 from people who have accepted a settlement, said Logan.

They have "very good compliance" in terms of the number of people who actually respond to their letters, he added.

Logan said the best advice he can offer is for alleged copyright infringers to get a legal opinion when they receive anti-piracy warning notices.

With files from Leif Larsen and Austin Grabish