When a student in one of UCLA’s eight residence halls wants the hit tune “Dance, Dance” from Fall Out Boy, a free version is just a few keystrokes away. Launch a popular file-sharing program like Kazaa or LimeWire, and the song is available in minutes. Want to share “Dance, Dance” with friends in another dorm? They can use the same file-sharing program to download it from the sender’s hard drive. Ditto for movies.

It’s that easy. It’s also illegal.

Peer-to-peer file-sharing of free downloads means the creators of the works in question get nothing for their creations, which is why record companies, movie studios and a fair number of famous artists have another word for the practice: piracy. Welcome to the download dilemma, a painfully complex stew of points of view that pits kids against corporations, artists against audiences, perceived rights against legal copyrights. And the nation’s universities are caught in the crossfire.

Does an institution ban the technology that allows file-sharing, even when it’s used for pristine reasons like student research? More ominously, does it prowl its own networks, looking for culprits? Or does it antagonize the entertainment industry — and Congress, which is trying to legislate the issue — and do nothing? “Piracy is the label the industry has given it in order to justify punitive action,” says Anthony Seeger, a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA and the nephew of legendary folksinger Pete Seeger. “I think they should be coming up with ways to distribute music effectively on the Internet so that students can have access to music easily and affordably.”

The problem is the pirate, not the navy, counters Myrl Schreibman ’67, M.F.A. ’69, UCLA adjunct professor of film and television. “I am involved in educating the next level of producers and directors, and I am very sensitive to the possibility that their material could be ripped off. It raises some hairs on the back of my neck.” (The subject is up close and personal for the professor, currently involved in a lawsuit against DreamWorks and Warner Bros. over their 2005 movie The Island, which Schreibman alleges is a copyright infringement of a 1979 film he co-produced called The Clonus Horror.)

For UCLA, the download dilemma boils down to basic obligations: protect its students, not to mention itself, and obey the law. And the campus, working with the University of California, has taken a leadership position in looking for ways to resolve the issue.

UCLA’s solution required a delicate balancing act, protecting a student’s right to use such programs for legitimate research purposes while installing a notification system to detect theft. It involved launching a campuswide education effort to teach students about the importance of protecting intellectual property. And with the recently unveiled “Get Legal” program, UCLA now offers students a legitimate and inexpensive way to buy content.

“We wanted to be very careful to deal with these [issues] in a way that stayed within our policies and cultural values, addressed the due process of the students, met the legal requirements of the [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] and showed our respect for copyright in the sense of being a producer of intellectual capital,” says Jim Davis, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor of information technology and chief information officer.

The notification system, installed on residence hall networks in 2004, is designed to deal with alleged file-sharing offenders without shutting down their online ability to communicate with professors, get access to class materials or check e-mail. The solution grew out of discussions UCLA and UC officials had with Universal Studios, Disney and other studios as part of a working group.

Vivendi Universal Entertainment and Universal Music Group had jointly developed the Automated Copyright Notification System (ACNS), which provides a technical way for any network service provider to process infringement notices from music and movie companies, thus saving time and money. ACNS automatically restricts or shuts down Internet access for alleged violators. UCLA modified the ACNS technology and policy assumptions (to conform to the university’s privacy rights policy) and deployed a “quarantine” approach based on a two-strike policy that would give students a chance to defend themselves. When the university is notified of an infringement, the quarantine approach first blocks the offending computer from file-sharing.

“The quarantine was for the machine,” says Kenn Heller ’77, associate director of UCLA’s Center for Student Programming. “If a student needed to do research [on off-campus Web sites], they could go to the computer lab in the residence hall. We felt the students’ rights were being maintained.”

At the same time, the system electronically sends a letter by e-mail to the offending computer, which explains to the student using that machine how to lift the quarantine. If it is the first offense, UCLA requires the student to take down allegedly infringing material identified in a copyright complaint and acknowledge that he or she has removed it, without admitting liability of any kind.

If the conditions are met, Heller says the student can electronically remove the quarantine. But for repeat offenses, the student must first meet with Heller to discuss what happened. Heller then decides what penalties are appropriate under the Student Conduct Code, which can range from referring the case to a student-conduct council to requiring the student to take a seminar on ethical decision-making. Heller says only one instance went that far, when he had to suspend a student for an academic quarter for more than two violations.

Hollywood measures UCLA’s success not by the number of violation notices students receive but by the number of repeat offenders. In the two years that UCLA has had the notification system, there was only the one repeat offender Heller suspended in the 200405 academic year, says Richard Atkinson, vice president of global anti-piracy strategy and operations at the Walt Disney Studios. “That is a pretty good step,” he says. “If students understand you can and will be caught, it hopefully will institute some values that will carry on.”

In truth, there’s not much any institution can do to protect its student body, because in the shadowy world of cyberspace, someone is always watching and waiting. The moment a student downloads a copyright-protected tune or movie without paying for it, a number uniquely identifying that computer can be captured by one of the entertainment industry’s hired guns who search the Web looking for digital content. If caught, kids may just get a warning that they’ve violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). If they’ve downloaded and shared enough songs or movies to be considered “egregious” violators — the studios won’t say exactly how many shared downloads trip the wire —they can be punished by a $500,000 fine and five years in jail.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the trade group that represents music companies, has filed suit against more than 17,000 people. Since the RIAA started suing students a year ago, 1,000 users on college and university networks have been sued. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) says it has filed “several hundred” lawsuits against individuals for piracy, although it doesn’t know how many of those are students, since November 2004.

Last May, five UCLA students were sued by the RIAA for using i2hub, a file-sharing program that enabled users to download music over the high-speed Internet-2 network available at many colleges and universities. A sixth student received a subpoena in September.

It’s unlikely that the young people caught in these organizations’ sights shared downloads because they wanted to make like Bonnie and Clyde. Today’s young adults grew up during a digital revolution where they learned that information on the Internet is free, or should be. A November 2005 report, “Teen Content Creators and Consumers,” by the Washington, D.C.based Pew Internet & American Life Project, found that “most teen downloaders think that getting free music is easy, and it’s unrealistic to expect people not to do it.”