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New Movement Hits Universities: Get Legal Music

Their core offering, though, is a music subscription service for a flat monthly fee, offering all-you-can-listen-to access to tunes from the major record labels and many independents. Cdigix charges schools about $3 per student per month; Ruckus charges $5 to $6 and includes 50 movies as well as 600,000 songs. Cdigix offers roughly twice as many songs, though some cost extra to access. Both allow users to download the files onto their computers rather than streaming them, with the files protected by Microsoft Corp. software to prevent copying to CDs or the Internet. Cdigix does let students buy many tracks for an additional 89 cents apiece and burn them to a CD, a capability Ruckus is introducing next month.

Both are adding a premium music-to-go service this spring that will let students pay a few extra dollars a month for the ability to move any tune in their subscription library to Microsoft-compatible media players, which does not include the iPod. Apple has not shown much enthusiasm in licensing its software to music services that compete with its iTunes music store.

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Because Ruckus and Cdigix store digital content on campus computers, the colleges save money on bandwidth costs that would otherwise result from heavy file sharing over the Internet. But cost savings aren't the big draw for universities.

It's those pesky lawsuits the Recording Industry Association of America keeps filing against file sharers, including many college students.

The RIAA has filed thousands of suits against people for sharing copyrighted material, including students on 11 college campuses last month alone.

AU got three subpoenas last semester for students suspected of illegal file sharing. The University of Maryland recently received a notice that its first subpoena likely will be coming soon.

Both the AU and University of Maryland trials were funded by grants from anonymous donors whom the vendors and universities declined to identify. But you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the sugar daddies likely are connected to the record industry, which is partnering with legal services in a desperate attempt to give young people alternatives to illegal file sharing.

Other likely suspects are vendors trying to sell technology for thwarting piracy. Whoever gave AU the money for a music trial did so on the condition that it simultaneously test a program that blocks illegal file sharing. That trial, started last week, involves software from a company called Audible Magic Corp. that identifies copyrighted audio files through unique digital markings. When it finds a copyrighted file being requested from a peer-to-peer site, Audible Magic blocks access.

Most universities have resisted blocking peer-to-peer services because they view such moves as censorship. But AU's vice president for campus life, Gail Hanson, said the school agreed to use Audible Magic through the end of next month because it was a temporary trial and seemed like a good trade-off. "In return, we could test a legal alternative to file sharing," she said.

Loyola College already blocks much file sharing, according to former student body president Kelly Crossett, who spearheaded the student committee that helped pick Cdigix as its music vendor. "Of course everybody would like free, unlimited downloading abilities, but that is just not realistic," she said. Crossett said Cdigix has been a big hit on campus since its introduction last month.

But at AU, some students said they don't like the idea of being forced to subscribe to any particular service. Others ridiculed the whole idea of subscriptions or "rented" music, along with the notion that Audible Magic's software could stop free sharing.

"I am into piracy," said one AU student who declined to give his name, lest the anti-piracy police track him down. "It's free and you can't beat that cost-benefit analysis."

Nor is he worried about getting sued. "What are the odds?" he added. "A drop in the bucket. The entire world is moving toward piracy. They can't catch us all."

Maybe not, but it's refreshing to hear other tunes finally being played in the music wars beside those grating sounds of the RIAA's "I'm gonna get you" subpoenas.

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.

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