In response to the widespread outbreak of illegal file-sharing over the Internet, many universities have recently taken steps to prevent students from pirating music, bootlegged movies, or other copyrighted media from the web. Penn State took the opposite approach last week, deciding that if you can't beat them, you may as well join them.
It announced that instead of trying to prevent students from obtaining music and movies from the Internet, it will allow this practice by paying for students to be able to download media files legally, starting this winter.
At Penn State, part of each student's "information technology fee" will be earmarked for a license to use Napster, the former rogue peer-to-peer downloading client. Napster was shut down for several years by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) but has recently been reincarnated as a pay-to-play program. Instead of hunting down students who pirate music, Penn State hopes to eliminate the problem of pirating altogether through the new deal with Napster.
Not everyone is happy with the new arrangement, however. Some Penn State students protest the arrangement because they do not download music off the Internet, and do not want to pay for a service that they will not use.
Most universities, including Chicago, have tried to solve file-sharing problems by warning students not to share illegally downloaded files and also by engaging in "traffic shaping"slowing downloads of music to snail-like speeds.
Chief Information Officer for the University Gregory Jackson fails to see the logic in Penn State's system. He said that the act of purchasing music is a process "fundamentally" between only two partiesand not the University.
If a student wants to purchase music online, that's their business, Jackson said, adding that the University does not purchase other products for Chicago students. "We don't buy clothing for our students and we don't buy beer for our students," he said.
"It's not clear to me why a university really belongs in the middle of this interaction," he said. "It costs money - it's not clear to me that this is the best use of the University's funds either."
Others, however, would like to see the University follow Penn State's lead. Nick Marinides, a first-year in the College, said he strongly encourages the move to purchase access to Napster.
"What is there that doesn't make sense? I think it's fair - it's less than you can pay for a CD full of songs, plus you can choose the songs you want," Marinides said. "And it's legal."
Enough students would use the service to make an increase in the information technology fee worthwhile, according to Marinides.
"I think that there are enough people who use it that it's a majority thing. I don't know many people who wouldn't use it. I think that the world of students is split into those who haven't used it so far because it's illegal and the majority of people who have [downloaded music] anyway," he said.
Jackson does not foresee the University following Penn State's lead, calling it, "a weird thing to do." But he added that he would not rule out the possibility of exploring alternative options to control file-sharing that seem particularly interesting.
He also listed some criticisms of Penn State's agreement, including the fact that the new Napster is incompatible with Macintoshes, Linux systems, or Windows Versions older than Windows 2000. Other limitations include not being able to transfer the music to CD or to share songs with an unlimited number of people.