Columns » The Monitor

Campus downloading made legal


The thing is rigged: A small handful of corporations own the nation's broadcast and cable networks, television stations, radio stations, newspapers and movie theaters. Even many Internet services, book and magazine publishers, record labels and billboard operators are part of the same corporate media machine.

The public's hunger for independent sources and dissenting voices is driving a change in the way we consume media, a change with enormous potential. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 crushed the overproduced, big studio competition and broke box office records. And because we're sick of hearing the same crappy songs and blaring commercials on the radio, we're turning to the Internet for an unending supply of new music. That scares the hell out of the recording industry. Meanwhile, musicians are struggling to find a way to make peer-to-peer file trading networks work for them, not against them. Documentary filmmakers trying to tell their own versions of the truth are coming up against the roadblocks of copyright, distribution and access put up by the corporate system. The companies that own the rights to other people's work are, in many cases, the same companies that own the media.

It's not a conspiracy. It's a big, broken machine that's not working for artists, audiences, or, for that matter, the industries that built it. To fix it, we've got to look at how these problems are connected.

The Monitor will listen to what's happening in the independent music scene, seek out local Web logs, watch bad TV, look critically at mainstream coverage of technology and media, and consider solutions to the dilemma of copyright in the digital age. Send questions or ideas to

As envious upperclassmen have heard by now, all incoming freshmen at Duke University will be getting iPods this year. The iPod deal is part of a $500,000 grant-funded pilot program to explore the use of technology in education. It's a nice perk for the students, but Apple gets some R&D out of the kids, too.

Just as the deal was announced, Apple's online music store sold its 100,000,000th song. Duke's students will have access to a customized Web site which will let them buy songs from the Apple music store (for which they, not the university, pay 99 cents) as well as special materials Duke faculty can make available to students--language lessons, lectures, audio books, class schedules and so on.

Apple's standard iTunes college plan is much simpler; it offers a site license for an entire school's IT system.

Mac is king right now, as sales of the redesigned iPod have shown. But Apple's 99-cents-a-song model is competing with another model that's growing in popularity. Subscription services let you listen to any song as many times as you like for a monthly fee -- usually about $20. You can save songs to your hard drive or MP3 player, but once your subscription ends, song files are automatically deleted unless you buy them for--yep--99 cents. The built-in expiration date in Napster's song files is controlled by Microsoft's digital rights management, which Mac systems don't run, so Napster's song files don't work on Macs.

Yet Napster is one of Apple's leading competitors in the online music business, and it, too, is signing up universities and colleges to its music service. Napster offers the schools a discounted fee, and the school decides how much to charge per-head to students. Fees at some of the 23 participating schools, which include Cornell, Middlebury and Penn State, run $4 to $6 per student, per month.

"We think the subscription service is the best type of legal alternative for what students are looking for, which is an all-you-can-eat music discovery tool," says Avery Kotler, senior director of legal and business affairs for Napster. "You can be part of a music community. For any particular song in the service, you can usually find other people who like it and see what else they're listening to."

Napster has been in talks with the University of North Carolina system, Kotler says.

Universities have some incentive to participate in plans like Napster's. The music industry's lawyers are looking for deep pockets, so offering students a legit music service insulates them from the industry's army of lawyers.

Last year, as the Recording Industry Association of America was suing music fans as young as 12 for illegally downloading music from peer-to-peer networks, UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University were served with subpoenas, too. The RIAA wanted them to give up the names of copyright-infringing students, but with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, universities fought and won in U.S. District Court. A previous decision in the RIAA's suit against Verizon set the precedent: The RIAA can't expect Internet service providers, whether they're universities or private companies, to do their dirty work.

But UNC is still grappling with how to educate students on the law. Last year, the university's Office of Information Technology devoted a week of campus events to the issue and took out ads advising students that they could be sued for downloading copyrighted material from p2p sites.

"There have been discussions [with Napster] and there continue to be discussions," says John Oberlin, UNC's executive director of academic technology and networks. He says there are no simple solutions for the awkward position universities find themselves in. "This campus, like every other campus, is concerned about appropriate use and copyright issues. There's nothing new about that," Oberlin says. "The challenge is to come up with the strategy that is appropriate for the academic environment and for the students, and that keeps the institution focused on its core mission."

Kotler says services like Napster offer schools a way to deal with students' online behavior in a way that doesn't punish them. "Kids are coming into colleges as digital consumers. If you have a legitimate alternative, you won't go to the p2p sites, or you'll go less. A lot of the schools are saying, this is illegal, it's wrong, we're getting sued for it, and they just block the p2p sites entirely. This is something positive schools can do."

But students can already choose between some half dozen legal digital music services. "We really care about the students, and we certainly want to keep them out of trouble," Oberlin says. "But we don't want to be the filter. The university's really dedicated to the exchange of ideas and information. Therefore, we are really not interested in any policy that makes us gatekeepers or policemen."

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