In lawsuits filed Thursday in federal courts in New York, New Jersey and Michigan, the Recording Industry Association of America asked that the sites be shut down and that it be paid maximum damages of $150,000 per song.
The RIAA said the file-sharing systems were being run by students at Michigan Technological University, Princeton University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The schools were not named as defendants.
Michigan Tech student Joseph Nievelt is accused of offering more than 650,000 songs for illegal downloading.
The other students being sued are Jesse Jordan and Aaron Sherman of Rensselaer, and Daniel Peng at Princeton, according to the Detroit Free Press.
The RIAA said the offenses were akin to those committed by Napster, which was ordered shut down after the courts found it violated musical copyrights.
"These systems are just as illegal and operate in the same manner," RIAA President Cary Sherman said in a statement.
The action reflects a recent trend in which the entertainment industry has become more aggressive in pursuing copyright infringers.
Four entertainment industry groups sent a letter to 2,300 university presidents last year, urging a tough stand on copyright infringement, and in January a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that Verizon Communications Inc. must identify an Internet subscriber suspected of illegally offering more than 600 songs from well known artists. The RIAA had sought the user's identity with a subpoena approved under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
In February, the RIAA joined with the Motion Picture Association of America in sending a six-page brochure to Fortune 1000 corporations that suggested corporate policies and offered a sample memo to employees warning against using company computers to download content from the Web.
The suits allege the students stored thousands of songs on a central server and made them available to students, staff, administrators and others with access to their schools' high-speed Internet networks. The songs could be downloaded using standard Web browsers.
The universities said they were investigating the claims. All the schools have policies prohibiting the use of their computer networks for copyright infringement.
Princeton spokeswoman Lauren Robinson-Brown said the school is unable to constantly monitor its network, but does take swift action when told of copyright infringement. The school removed the site within 24 hours of being notified, she said.
The legal action irritated Michigan Technological University President Curtis Tompkins, who said he wished the music industry had contacted the school, as he said it had done in the past when copyright infringements were discovered.
"Had you followed the previous methods established in notification of a violation, we would have shut off the student and not allowed the problem to grow to the size and scope that it is today," Tompkins wrote Thursday in a letter to the RIAA's Sherman.
The RIAA said the massive nature of the alleged offenses required a strong response.
"This is not an instance of an individual student simply offering up some sound recordings on a Web site," said Matthew Oppenheim, senior vice president of business and legal affairs for the RIAA.
In the Michigan case, Oppenheim said, the student ran a network offering more than 650,000 music files for downloading, in addition to 1,866 songs from his own personal collection.
"It would be our hope that universities are aware of what is happening on their networks," he said. "The onus shouldn't rest on any given copyright holder to provide a warning to an individual when something of this size and scope is happening."