A growing number of colleges and universities across the country are introducing services that enable their students to download music and movie files over their high-speed computer networks legally. School leaders look at these services as a “win-win-win” situation: Students can access their favorite media in digital format, schools can use these services as a recruiting tool, and the entertainment industry–which has funded many of these projects–can shape the habits of future customers.
College junior Kyle Taylor is downloading hundreds of songs by No Doubt, Bruce Springsteen, and others onto the Compaq laptop in his cramped dormitory room. With a few more clicks of his mouse, Taylor is watching commercial-free “Seinfeld” episodes on his computer. In just minutes, he then downloads the entire movie A League of Their Own. The 20-year-old is not breaking any laws. Nor is he at risk of expensive lawsuits by the entertainment industry over copyright violations.
Taylor and his classmates at American University–and thousands more students at other U.S. colleges–are among the earliest customers of a new generation of legal downloading services approved by the largest music labels and Hollywood studios. Students appear enthusiastic, despite some early kinks that can keep them from loading songs onto iPods.
“You can one-click-download an entire album, and the downloading time is, like, a minute,” Taylor said. His laptop holds more than 3,000 songs.
In the search for online customers, entertainment companies are aggressively pursuing college students, who cannot remember life before the internet.
This generation works off laptops more than it watches television, plugs into high-speed university networks, uses the web for homework and headlines–and, on average, carries around more than 1,000 songs on a hard drive.
Already, dozens of schools are rolling out downloading services from Ruckus Network Inc., RealNetworks Inc., Napster LLC, and Sea Blue Media LLC. So important is this university market that Sony BMG Music Entertainment, the world’s largest label, has paid the entire bill at some schools during trial semesters. Sony-backed artists are available for downloading on all the major services.
“We’re reaching into our pockets,” said Andrew Lack, the chief executive for Sony BMG. “At a certain point, the universities have to step up, too, but this is about an investment in the future.”
Sony BMG will not say how much it is spending on the effort. Many private schools will not disclose how they are paying for these services. American University, for example, says only that money came from a generous, anonymous donor to the school in the nation’s capital.
The University of North Carolina system got $150,000 from Sony BMG in the fall to offer services in dormitories across five campuses, said Thomas C. Warner, UNC’s director of coordinated technology management. Warner said roughly 60 percent of students regularly use the download services.
Most schools ultimately expect to charge students future subscription costs of $5 to $8 per month in dorm fees.
“If kids build a habit to not pay for media, that is a habit that will persist maybe for their entire lives,” said William Raduchel, chief executive at Herndon, Va.-based Ruckus Network and a former executive at AOL Time Warner. “We want to be the place where kids want to be when they don’t have to be anywhere.”
Weary from problems blamed on illegal downloads–piracy lawsuits against students, virus outbreaks and congestion on school computer networks–universities are embracing these new services. Moreover, colleges are in fierce competition to enroll top students and fill empty dorm rooms, so they pitch music downloading to prospective students.
“Who’s got music downloading and who’s got the most comfortable mattresses really matters,” said Julie Weber, American University’s executive director for housing and dining programs.
Parents can feel more comfortable, too. At least three students at American were among hundreds nationwide forced to pay thousands of dollars to settle copyright suits by the recording industry.
Already available at eight schools, including American University, Ruckus’ service offers unlimited downloads for a flat fee from a library of more than 525,000 songs and a collection of 50 full-length movies and television shows that rotate monthly.
More than 1,000 newer movies, such as Spider-Man 2, can be downloaded for about $2.50 each. It’s convenient enough to lead a student to put off that term paper for a few more hours.
Sophomore Scott Goldstein of Marlton, N.J., watches movies like Groundhog Day or American Beauty on part of his computer screen at the same time he does his homework. “It’s a good distraction,” said Goldstein, 19.
“Students spend a lot of time sitting around, spend a tremendous amount of time in their dorms and on their computers,” said Kelly Crossett of Westchester, N.Y., a junior at Loyola College in Maryland, which offers music downloads from Sea Blue Media’s rival Cdigix service.
“We are very happy with what we have right now. If you give students a legal way to get what they want, who’s going to do it illegally?” Crossett said.
There are some frustrations. All-you-can-download subscription services typically offer “tethered” music and movies, meaning students must periodically reconnect to the service from their dorm–once every 30 days for music–to keep watching or listening. If they do not, their song and movie files are rendered useless.
This ensures that students cannot send copies of popular songs or movies to friends who are not subscribers. But it also means a library of music is automatically crippled after graduation unless users keep paying a monthly fee, higher than what a school typically charges, to the downloading service.
Also, college students are caught in the industry’s esoteric battle over digital music formats and how record companies can best protect songs from hackers and pirates.
Most songs on these services can be played only on a Windows computer and cannot be transferred to most portable music players, including Apple’s popular iPod. A few services, like Cdigix, let students purchase a song for an extra fee–from 79 cents to 99 cents–that can be loaded to an iPod.
“Music is no good to me if I can’t get it on my iPod,” Goldstein said.
Sony BMG’s chief executive promises help is on the way.
“We’ve got to bust down all those walls,” Lack said. “This is really the first year for the program, but we’ve got to improve and make them better.”
University of North Carolina
Loyola College in Maryland