Universities and Napster

Somebody posted to Slashdot today about George Washington University making a deal with Napster. The list of comments about this is more interesting than the actual deal (since Penn State and the University of Rochester struck deals with the digital music service a while ago). Many of the comments focus on the argument that a) this won’t really stop students from downloading copyrighted music illegally and b) it’s lame that universities are spending money (read: tuition) on providing this type of service instead of on educating students.

While those arguments are somewhat valid, they are also short-sighted. And I don’t know if it’s because people don’t know much about how universities work or because when you have an online forum, you get a lot of not-very-thought-out comments. Probably both. In any case, my point is that yes, it won’t stop students from downloading copyrighted music illegally, but it will probably stop a significant percentage of them since not every college student jumps on the illegal file-sharing bandwagon as quickly as the media and the entertainment industry makes it out to seem. You still have to actually know about programs like Kazaa and BitTorrent and whatever-the-next-thing-is and you have to know how to use these technologies, where to look, etc. And with bandwidth caps and shaping, sometimes even blocking, of file-sharing traffic on an increasing number of college campuses, it makes it even harder. Not to mention that it’s getting harder and harder nowadays to get a decent download of a song on the first try. Realistically, if you find the right price point that’s trivial enough for the average college student, they will pay for music. And no matter what record companies might say, there are still plenty of college students who may download copyrighted music illegally but also buy CDs on a regular basis. The Try before you buy digital music model actually works a lot of the time.

But in general, when you’re talking about how many college students listen to digital music, an investment into some type of campus digital music service isn’t an idea that should be dismissed so readily. And especially when you consider how much of a resource suck DMCA complaints and file-sharing has become on college campuses, it’s worth it to many universities to come up with a better solution. Many universities are drowning in a sea of file-sharing and copyright melodrama and everybody is scared shitless of the threat of liability. That’s why universities are forming groups like the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Community Members— it may seem like they’re just getting in bed with the RIAA and the MPAA, but there’s also a desperation in alliances like this one. Universities know that something needs to be done because it really can’t go on like this– with students getting sued and university legal offices and IT departments spending all of their resources on handling DMCA issues– much longer. By choosing to provide a service like Napster, some universities are simply hoping that they’ll save money in the long run so that they can get back to the business of educating their students instead of the business of worrying about everybody getting sued.

Personally, I think that big (read: rich) universities like Stanford and MIT should lead the charge in standing up to the RIAA and the MPAA. I know, the real fear is that if they did do something like that, the RIAA and the MPAA could unleash all of their resources against them and even higher-ed powerhouses like Stanford and MIT could most likely never fight back with the same force. But you never know. These universities are leaders in technology and research and are home to people like Larry Lessig and campaigns like Computer Scientists for Social Responsibility and Verified Voting. Who knows what support they might be able to drum up if they decided to fight this fight?

In the meantime, I think digital music services like iTunes and Napster should consider offering educational pricing for all students and not worry about making deals with each individual institution. Verifying enrollment and student status might be a challenge, but think about how many college students would jump on that!

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