Wayne Chang hopes to return to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst this year to finish up a business degree. But he might not be altogether welcome on campus, since dozens of his fellow students are threatening to sue him for $157,500.
That's what it will cost the students to settle lawsuits from music recording companies, which say the students illegally distributed copyrighted tunes over the Internet using a file-swapping service founded by Chang and called i2hub. Chang said he had no idea students would use his system for illegal activity. But the UMass-Amherst students say i2hub's advertising misled them into believing that the file swapping was legal. They want Chang's defunct service to pay the damages.
They'll have to fight for it. ''We think that they're wrong, and we're not offering any settlement of any kind," Chang said.
Chang, 22, is a former employee of Napster, the Internet file-swapping service that attracted millions of users half a decade ago. Napster was shut down after federal courts ruled that the company encouraged users to trade illegally copied music recordings. It has since been relaunched as a licensed music distributor.
The experience didn't deter Chang from starting i2hub. Unlike Napster and other Internet swap services, the i2hub system used Internet 2, a superfast data network used almost exclusively by colleges and universities. I2hub's fast download speeds made it an attractive file-swapping system.
''It was just a college project anyway," said Chang. ''It wasn't meant to be a business." The company did urge users to donate money, but it didn't charge for its software or service. I2hub ran advertisements, sometimes on the sides of UMass campus buses, but Chang said that he and his colleagues only did this to inform students about the system, not to turn them into paying customers.
Even though Napster and other file-swapping services have mainly been used for illegal exchanges of copyrighted software, movies, and music, Chang insisted that i2hub was created just to help students communicate with one another. ''Our website didn't even have the words music or movies on there," he said.
But music industry investigators soon found i2hub users swapping large quantities of pirated music files. They identified dozens of i2hub users and last April sued them for copyright violations.
The music companies didn't go after i2hub because it was unclear at the time whether the company was liable for its users' copyright violations. But the US Supreme Court last summer ruled that operators of file-swapping services can be sued if there is evidence that they encourage users to commit illegal acts.
That ruling led Chang to shut down i2hub in November, convinced that the music industry would come after him if he didn't. Instead, it's his classmates that want a piece of him.
At least 42 UMass-Amherst students were sued. The students are trying to settle the suits with help from the school's Student Legal Services Office, an independent agency that doesn't represent the university. Lisa Kent, staff attorney at the legal services office, sent Chang a ''demand letter" Dec. 16. Kent wrote that she hoped to settle the record company lawsuits against the 42 students for $3,750 per student, or a total of $157,500. But she said that i2hub should pay the settlement due to its ''contributory infringement" of the companies' copyrights, as well as its ''unfair or deceptive practices."
Chang's attorney, Charles Baker, scoffs at Kent's argument. ''How can a user turn around and sue for this?" said Baker. ''They're the ones who decided to commit copyright infringement."
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.