Four schools in the University of North Carolina (UNC) system will participate in a pilot program that will allow students to download music, movies, and other copyrighted material on the internet for free.

Four digital content providers–iTunes, Ruckus, Cdigix, and Rhapsody–are participating in the test runs spearheaded by UNC system administrators, who for years have been searching for a solution to illegal file-sharing on campus.

The universities will be responsible for monitoring any computers hooked into their networks and are expected to remove copyrighted files that are shared illegally.

Several UNC system schools–including UNC-Chapel Hill–have been involved in legal battles over students’ use of campus networks to illegally download files.

Dozens of individual universities nationwide have launched legal file-sharing programs in response to the music industry’s push to stop illegal sharing. UNC reportedly is the first university system to do so.

“We lead a lot,” said Tom Warner, director of coordinated technology for the UNC system. “That’s one of the joys of being one of the largest university systems in the country.”

The pilot schools–North Carolina A&T State, Western Carolina, UNC-Wilmington, and the North Carolina School of the Arts–were chosen based on interest and technological capabilities, Warner said.

The state’s largest schools, UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State, are slated to join in the spring. If the pilot program proves successful, the entire UNC system eventually would be brought online.

Campuses would be able to select among the providers based on student feedback. Students probably will have to pay a fee for the program once the testing phase ends.

Similar services nationwide charge students $2 to $5 a month, officials said.

The cost of the test run will be covered by a major music label, which Warner said was impressed with UNC’s ingenuity and agreed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the project. Warner declined to release the label’s name or the cost of the pilot program.

The initiative was officially announced Oct. 14, but A&T had begun testing the Ruckus service about two weeks before that.

Ruckus offers about 500,000 songs from various labels, including Universal Music Group, Warner Music, and Sony. Three other U.S. universities use the service, company officials said.

About 40 people–at least half of whom are students–already have access to Ruckus at A&T, said Sam Harrison, associate vice chancellor for information technology and telecommunications.

Students will be brought on in increasing numbers, and the entire campus could have access as early as this spring.

“We’re just starting to get to the point where the rubber meets the road,” Harrison said. “We’ll start to ratchet it up, but we need to see how it goes.”

Other schools across the country have taken similar steps to curb illegal file sharing.

Besides the UNC system, at least 20 universities–including Pennsylvania State University, the University of Miami, and Northern Illinois University–have signed deals with Ruckus, Napster 2.0, RealNetworks Inc., and other licensed download services to provide students with discounted downloading or free music streaming, according to a report issued earlier this year by a committee of entertainment industry executives and university leaders. (See “Schools praised for piracy prevention,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5228.)

Many universities also have made the anti-piracy message a fixture of student orientation sessions. Others, meanwhile, are using technology to filter or block illegal file-sharing activity on their networks.

“It’s quite clear that every university has gotten the message that this is a serious issue, and they’re all doing something,” said Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America. “There really has been a fundamental change.”

Links:

University of North Carolina system
http://www.northcarolina.edu

iTunes Music Store
http://www.apple.com/itunes/download

Ruckus Network
http://www.ruckusnetwork.com

Cdigix
http://www.cdigix.com/website/cdigix

Rhapsody
http://www.rhapsody.com

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