Many school technology directors have yet to encounter the new music-capture software program known as Napster. But among those who have, according to an eSchool News straw poll, most are worried that Napster-using students could lead to network traffic jams and copyright infringement.

Napster allows users to log on to the internet and capture compressed music files, known as MP3s. The Napster software, created by 19-year-old college student Shawn Fanning, lets users search for and download these MP3 files directly from computer hard drives, rather than from a central database.

Several colleges have experienced major network traffic jams from students using Napster, and the music industry is furious about what it considers the illegal appropriation of its work.

“Online or off-line, a business model based on pirated music is simply not fair. No other service on the net has generated as many calls of outrage from artists, managers, and artists’ representatives,” said Cary Sherman, senior executive vice president and general counsel for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

Heavy metal band Metallica has alleged that the University of Southern California, Yale University, and Indiana University (IU) allowed free trade of copyrighted songs to flourish by failing to block access to the Napster software program, thereby violating the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

The San Francisco-based band filed a lawsuit against the universities in the U.S. District Court of Los Angeles on April 13. Metallica subsequently dropped Yale and IU from its lawsuit after the two universities agreed to block access to Napster on their computer networks.

Napster is embroiled in a lawsuit of its own. The company is being sued by the RIAA in federal court in San Francisco. The trade group, which represents major recording labels, alleges copyright infringement by Napster and is seeking $100,000 for each song traded using Napster software.

“No one is trying to stop technology—all the RIAA and its members are trying to do is to put a stop to a new high-tech type of theft,” the industry group said in a statement.

Napster has defended its right to provide MP3 files to its users.

Ruth Friedman, technology director for Beachwood City Schools in Ohio, believes that Napster’s users, not the program itself, are the ones committing the crime of copyright infringement. “Can you sue the VCR company because kids can rent a video and re-record it?” she said, though she added that her district does not sanction the use of Napster or similar programs.

Several universities have blocked access to Napster because its use by students to download audio files has slowed their networks to a crawl. Some educators worry there have not been enough precautions taken to prevent this from happening at the K-12 level as well.

In an informal poll taken on the eSchool News web site, 12 percent of educators said the use of Napster to download MP3 files was a “huge problem” in their schools. Twenty-seven percent said it was a “slight problem,” and 23 percent said it wasn’t a problem at all.

But fully 38 percent of respondents said they were unaware of Napster or its use.

Russell Smith, an education technology consultant for the Region 14 Education Services Center in Abilene, Texas, worries that K-12 network supervisors “lack sufficient skills to even recognize what is happening with bandwidth loss. They’ll learn sooner or later, but probably later.”

Friedman said programs like Napster don’t necessarily pose a threat to K-12 schools. “I don’t think this will be a huge problem. Although we are not censoring our students, we do have our antennas out. Even our eMail is supervised,” she said.

eSchool News ethics and law columnist David Splitt thinks the problems created by Napster are nothing new to schools.

“This is really no different than the problems that were posed by photocopiers,” he said. It’s “the opportunity to copy someone else’s stuff, just with different technology.”

Schools have many ways to protect themselves, he added: (1) Supervise the use of school computers, so that any student using the computers for downloading (or uploading) MP3 files would be noticed; (2) have a policy against copyright infringement (which is what the lawsuits must be based on) via computer, photocopying, and so on; and (3) use a filter or proxy server that won’t allow access to MP3 sites.

“Whether there are legal problems depends on how school administrators and teachers supervise the use of technology,” Splitt said.

Napster

http://www.napster.com

Recording Industry Association of America

http://www.riaa.org