In an apparent campus first aimed at undercutting the music file-swapping craze, Penn State University will offer students free digital music from the newly relaunched Napster service, university officials said Nov. 6. The service provides music for listening and limited downloading.

However, if students want to keep a song or burn it to a CD, they will need to pay 99 cents per song.

Napster’s collection of some 500,000 songs will be available in January to some 18,000 students living in residence halls on several Penn State campuses, including the main University Park campus. Next fall, the service will be available to all 83,000 students throughout the university system. In addition, Penn State faculty, staff, and alumni will be offered discounted Napster 2.0 memberships.

Students won’t be charged directly for the basic service. Instead, Penn State will use part of the $160 technology fee students pay each semester to fund the program.

The university’s goal is to give students the music options they need for free, eliminating the incentive to use peer-to-peer file-sharing sites, Napster president Mike Bebel said.

Besides draining the bandwidth of school computer networks, illegal file sharing has made students the target of lawsuits by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Faced with a growing number of subpoenas and cease-and-desist letters, many schools are looking for legal alternatives for their students.

Ian Rosenberger, president of the Undergraduate Student Government at Penn State, said six students have been testing the service.

“To this point they’ve been pretty thrilled,” Rosenberger said. “There’s kind of an all-encompassing effect that some of the illegal services don’t have that the students really liked.”

Rosenberger said students will be able to stream music at no cost. They will also be able to download a song and move it to a digital music player for a brief period of time for free, he said.

He conceded that some students will probably balk at having to pay for permanent downloads, but said many will be satisfied with being able to move songs to portable music players.

“I’m really excited about the whole thing, and I’m really interested to see how the students like it,” he said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of different student voices on the whole thing, so we’ll get an interesting perspective in the next few months.”

“When I went to search all the different songs that I like, it was very rare that anything wasn’t there that I wanted,” said Julie Vastyan, one of the six students who tested the service. “In my opinion, I think it’s a great program. I think the positives far outweigh the negatives.”

For some students, though, those negatives–specifically, the fee for regular downloads–are substantial.

“It sounds OK, but when I download a song I don’t want to be limited,” said Kristen Marks, a sophomore from Maryland who said she often downloads music free of charge from Kazaa and other peer-to-peer file-sharing sites. “I definitely don’t want to pay a dollar a song.”

Some students who were put off by the recording industry’s lawsuits object to the service out of principle.

“I feel like I’m paying the RIAA,” Chad Lindell, a senior at Penn State’s campus in Erie, Pa., told the Los Angeles Times.

University President Graham B. Spanier co-chairs the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities with Cary Sherman, head of the RIAA. The committee was formed to find ways to curb illegal music swapping on college campuses.

The committee said earlier it was exploring ways that universities could provide free or discounted music to students as a way to eliminate illegal song sharing through university computer networks.

“[Spanier] is a real leader in this, and he’s talked in the past about ways to do this,” said Josh Bernoff, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. “By doing this, they manage to not only potentially block piracy but remove the reason why anyone would want to do it.”

He said he knows of no other university using such a strategy to combat piracy but expects other schools to follow suit.

In late October, two MIT students who developed a system to give students in university dorms legal access to thousands of songs over the school’s cable television network were shut down by the university because of concerns the service was not licensed.

The students said they had negotiated rights for Seattle-based Loudeye to sell MP3s for the system, but the Harry Fox Agency, which handles mechanical licenses for the National Music Publishers Association, said no licenses had been granted to either MIT or Loudeye. (See “Update: MIT shuts down alternative file-swapping network,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4757.)

Software maker Roxio Inc. launched Napster 2.0 on Oct. 29. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company acquired the Napster brand from the ashes of the free pioneer file-swapping service, which was forced to shut down in 2001 after a protracted legal battle with recording companies.

Napster 2.0 users have access to more than half a million songs from all the major music labels. They can download individual songs for 99 cents and albums for $9.95. The service also offers access to unlimited downloads and streaming for $9.95 per month.

Spanier would not say how much the university will pay for the service, nor how long the contract would run. He did say that, to his knowledge, Penn State is the first university to make such an arrangement.

Links:

Penn State University
http://www.psu.edu

Napster 2.0
http://www.napster.com

Recording Industry Association of America
http://www.riaa.org