Many American colleges and peer-to-peer file sharing networks may soon enter into a match made in copyright heaven.
Pennsylvania State University earlier this month launched a file-sharing network in conjunction with Napster, the free music standard-bearer turned pay-for-play service.
The deal permits on-campus students access to more than 500,000 music files and other media, with plans to expand the network to the entire student body next fall, for free. But there's a catch: If students want to burn songs to CDs or download them to MP3 players, they'll have to pay 99 cents per file or $9.95 for an album.
Some say there could be legal and financial incentives for the University of Arizona to jump on the bandwagon.
Educational institutions may face lawsuits if they don't put a stop to file sharing. It's a possibility colleges have been worried about since the Recording Industry Association of America--the bane of digital freeloaders everywhere--started serving subpoenas.
Avoiding legal problems was the impetus behind the Napster deal, said Tysen Kendig, Penn State news bureau manager.
"This program was designed and launched as a new student service and in response to a mounting legal dilemma on college campuses," Kendig said. "We've had extensive contact from other colleges and universities interested in following Penn State's lead, as well as contact from several dozen college newspapers (that) were curious about the program and questioning why their school doesn't have this."
Not all Penn State students were thrilled about the pact, which will include faculty and staff in the fall. Even though the service is being paid for by a fee that was already in place, some reportedly thought the money would be better spent upgrading computer equipment or facilities.
Others expressed misgivings about their education dollars going to Napster and the music industry.
Napster officials didn't return calls seeking comment.
Locally, the RIAA and Motion Picture Association of America filed around 450 notices of copyright infringement with the UA last year, said Dan Lee, an undergraduate services librarian who handles complaints. The UA instructs alleged offenders to remove the copyrighted material.
"If we didn't respond in the way the Digital (Millennium) Copyright Act says we should, we could be held responsible," Lee said. "That's why we respond. It's up to the copyright holder to go from there."
Colleges like the UA may be nervous about the legality of downloading music, but many students aren't.
"I get on there (to Kazaa, a file-sharing service) about every day or so," said UA sophomore Brent W. Beyerle. "I'm not worried about getting caught as long as I don't solicit songs or anything."
In addition to stemming legal problems, there are possible financial reasons to support a deal.
Penn State paid an undisclosed amount of money, funded by their students' "information technology fee," so they could get copies of Napster's music files. Storing the files on campus reduces the burden on bandwidth resources that lead to and from the university.
Internet traffic at the UA--or any college--is somewhat like vehicle traffic. If too many cars use a road, extra lanes have to be added to accommodate them. Similarly, if too much information is being sent in and out of the UA's computer network, extra capacity--or bandwidth--has to be added. That takes money.
According to Ted Frohling, assistant director of network services for the UA's Center for Computing and Information Technology, it costs about $1 million a year just to maintain the UA's bandwidth.
A sizeable portion of Internet traffic at certain times of the day is peer-to-peer file sharing by students, faculty and staff, he said. In many cases, these resources are being used for illegal file sharing.
"It's costing us money, because we have to have enough bandwidth so people can get their real work done," Frohling said. "Computer resources are finite and must be shared."
Before the UA capped bandwidth use during peak hours, Frohling said as much as 60 percent of it was being gobbled up by peer-to-peer file sharing applications like Kazaa.
Less traffic means the UA could pay for less bandwidth, which would be a boon in these lean budgetary times, Frohling said. A deal similar to the Penn State-Napster agreement could possibly save the UA money if Napster's fee is reasonable--and if people use the file-sharing program.
UA senior Jimmy Mooney was skeptical about the concept, because the files stored wouldn't work after someone leaves a university for good--unless that person shelled out the 99-cents-per-file fee to record the song to a CD or an MP3 player .
"If it was just like other streaming radio, I'd say it's not worth it," he said, about paying to make music files portable. "Especially if the licensing cost the U of A money, and therefore was reflected back on tuition. I'd be happy stealing music."
Mooney said there's an image problem for the RIAA and, by association, Napster. He added that people can't get around the RIAA without breaking the law, however.
"The industry in general has a right to protect their intellectual property, but they need to do it with more of an open eye," he said. "They need to stop raiding the houses of 12-year-olds and take a more tactful approach because they're just making their image worse.
"But any pay service you use, money goes to the RIAA. If you think there's some service that gets around them, then you're naïve."