If the early summer eMail is any indication, the hot cyberlaw topic on the minds of school managers is Napster—and the possibility that big, expensive lawsuits eventually might be filed against school systems.

Never heard of Napster? Well, it’s time to crawl out from under that rock! As you already know, the internet is just a big web of electronics that shares information in digital form. You also know that one of the more recent (at least compared with the Victrola) advances in the music industry is digital recording. As the fairy godmother in “Cinderella” sings, “Put them together and whatta ya got?” A major bibbidi-bobbidi from the record business and established musicians, for one thing.

It has always been fairly easy for one computer user to share files with another user. The problem arises when you can share files with a lot of people, especially when those files contain copyrighted material. You might be familiar with the newest technology that stores music in the form of digital MP3 files that can be played back on MP3 players (the nifty little portable gadgets that students seem to have growing out of the sides of their heads). Napster is software that allows MP3 files to be shared across the internet.

Users sign on to the Napster server and can see what music other users have stored on their computers. When you find something you like, you just download it from another user’s hard drive. While Napster has received the most attention, other programs that allow MP3 sharing without a central hub, like Gnutella, Freenet, CuteMX, Jungle-Monkey, and Hotline, are sure to stir up just as much—or even more—controversy and litigation.

In copyright violation terms, it is like being able to hook up a high-speed photocopier to your computer and send thousands of copies of a book across the web. The folks at Napster do not actually do any of the copying or distributing, but they provide the technology that makes it possible for users to do this easily and on a huge scale.

Understandably, the music folks who make lots of money by selling their products object to the wholesale copying—no, call it what it is … stealing—of their music. There are a lot of lawyers buzzing around the Napster flowers waiting to suck out their share of the nectar. While the Recording Industry Association of America filed suit against Napster with rapper-producer Dr. Dre (RIAA v. Napster) and the band Metallica has sued Yale University and other colleges for facilitating the music “sharing” through campus computer networks, I wouldn’t worry too much about them coming after your schools just yet.

The biggest problem your schools might face stemming from Napster is technological. MP3 files are compressed, but they carry a huge amount of data (about a megabyte per minute of music) and can clog up a network pretty quickly. A number of colleges have blocked the Ethernet ports through which students exchange MP3 files in order to free up network logjams. You don’t want students downloading MP3 music files when they are supposed to be downloading research information on crop failures in Somalia.

There are a few easy things that you can do to make sure your legal bills don’t include defending an MP3 copyright infringement lawsuit. First, you must recognize that copyright laws apply to MP3 files, just as they apply to computer software. You don’t permit copying of books or computer programs at your school, so Napster should be off limits, too.

Teachers and librarians regularly should monitor large file uploads and downloads on school computers. If your network connection to the internet can block certain sites and activities, put Napster-type operations out of bounds. Finally, your school system already should have a policy on copyright infringement. Make sure it has been updated to include the newest hardware (computers as well as copying machines) and newest source material (copyrighted computer programs and other data files, including MP3 files).

There may be a “fair use” defense available for legitimate educational subjects, but the sharing of music files for entertainment purposes cannot drop anchor in that safe harbor. It would also be appropriate to inform students about the realities of MP3 “sharing” and its impact on the music industry. This is an ongoing controversy that is moral and economic, as well as legal, and should be an interesting and stimulating topic for classroom discussion.