George Washington University this fall will become one of a small number of colleges to attempt a novel solution to the problem of students illegally downloading music from the Internet:
It's going to give them the music, legally, for free.
Through a deal worked out with the online music library Napster, students living in campus residence halls will be able to access hundreds of thousands of songs over the university's high-speed network, effectively allowing them to use their personal computers as digital jukeboxes.
University officials would not say how much it will cost to provide Napster subscriptions to all 7,100 on-campus students, but they said the program's first trial year will be underwritten by a gift from a donor who wished to remain anonymous. Napster, once the enemy of the recording industry because it began as a rogue network of music lovers trading copyrighted songs for free, now boasts an authorized library of more than 700,000 tracks, each available with a few clicks of a keyboard and marketed to individual consumers for $9.95 a month.
The free tunes could represent an apex of dorm-room luxury when many college students have come to expect living quarters outfitted with cable TV, private bathrooms and 24-hour fitness centers, among other amenities.
But GWU officials are turning to the Napster service less as a means of wooing prospective students than as a way to tackle the technological and ethical crises posed by the downloading revolution. Linda J. Schutjer, the university's associate general counsel, said today's students have become accustomed to taking music off the Internet -- much of it unauthorized, using such computer file-sharing services as Morpheus or Kazaa -- and come to campus expecting that music should always come fast and free.
Napster -- a revamped version of the service that launched the file-sharing craze before being shut down by the courts in 2001 -- will provide a legal alternative, she said. "It goes hand in hand with the effort to show students what they should and should not do."
GWU students cheered the news of the Napster plan but expressed some skepticism. Although the subscriptions will allow them to listen to as much music as they want for free through their computers, they will have to pay 99 cents for any song they copy onto a compact disc or portable music player.
"For me, it seems like this would suit my needs," said Sara Marley, 21, a senior from Middlebury, Vt., who admitted to occasionally downloading illicit dance music or country songs to listen to in her room. "But I don't think it's going to stop people from downloading music [illegally]."
With their young, tech-savvy populations and easy access to high-speed computer networks, U.S. college campuses have ended up on the frontlines of the downloading battles. Several local campuses -- including GWU -- were among those subpoenaed by the recording industry for information about students identified as illegally downloading music.
The Napster solution was first tried early this year in pilot programs at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Rochester. Napster is expected to announce agreements with five other colleges, along with the GWU agreement, next week.
While a service such as Napster remains prohibitively expensive for most colleges, some -- including Virginia Tech -- have recently announced that they will provide students with software for Apple's iTunes, which allows for the lawful downloading of online music. Under those arrangements, students would have to pay for each song they access.
Bill Mahon, a spokesman for Penn State, said the school was motivated more by concerns about ethics than about litigation. "Universities have a lot at stake with copyright law," he said. "We have faculty who are writing operas, who are creating film scripts, who are participating in a dozen different orchestras and choruses, who are publishing things in academic journals. . . . It's important for [students] to learn and understand they have a stake in it."
Mahon said Penn State officials were pleased with results of the pilot program, offered to about 14,000 residence hall students, and plan to expand it to about 83,000 students on and off-campus this fall.
But Julie Vastyan, a student government official who recently graduated, said the service received mixed reviews from students who were frustrated that they couldn't find songs they wanted in Napster's catalogue. Some also complained about the 99-cent charge for copying music onto CDs or portable music players. "Students found a way to get around it, but it's not exactly legal," Vastyan said.
Officials with Napster, now a division of Roxio Inc., in Los Angeles, did not respond to calls for comment.
GWU students just now hearing news of the Napster plan expressed curiosity -- and some doubts. Michelle Choi, a senior from Tustin, Calif., who serves as indie-rock director for the campus radio station, defended downloading as a way to promote more obscure artists -- which she said inspires more people to buy their CDs.
"How many of those [Napster] files are actually artists that aren't on a major record label?" she asked. "If they don't have something I want to listen to, I'm still going to go to Kazaa and download it.
"I could go to Napster and download Britney Spears, but I don't want to."