As a student at Cornell University, Angelo Petrigh had access to free online music via a legal music-downloading service his school provided. Yet the 21-year-old still turned to illegal file-sharing programs.

The reason: While Cornell’s online music program, through Napster, gave him and other students free, legal downloads, the eMail introducing the service explained that students could keep their songs only until they graduated. “After I read that, I decided I didn’t want to even try it,” says Petrigh, a senior at the Ithaca, N.Y., school.

College students don’t turn down much that is free. But when it comes to online music, even free hasn’t been enough to persuade many students to use such digital download services as Napster, Rhapsody, Ruckus, and Cdigix. As a result, some schools have dropped their services, and others are considering doing so or have switched to other providers.

To stop students from pirating music, more than 120 colleges and universities have tried providing free or subsidized access to the legal subscription services over campus networks in the past few years. About 7 percent of all four-year schools and 31 percent of private research universities provided one of the legal downloading services, according to a 2005 survey of 500 schools by the Campus Computing Project, a nonprofit that studies how colleges use information technology.

Universities typically pay for the services, some with private grants and others through student fees. While a typical monthly subscription to Napster is $9.95, the schools have been able to cut special deals, funded in part by record companies.

Purdue University officials say lower-than-expected demand among its students stems in part from all the frustrating restrictions that accompany legal downloading. Students at the West Lafayette, Ind., school can play songs free on their laptops but have to pay to burn songs onto CDs or load them onto a digital music device.

There’s also the problem of compatibility: The services won’t run on Apple computers, which are owned by 19 percent of college students, according to a 2006 survey of 1,200 students by the research group Student Monitor. In addition, the files won’t play on Apple iPods, which are owned by 42 percent of college students, according to the same survey.

“People still want to have a music collection. Music listeners like owning their music, not renting,” says Bill Goodwin, 21, who graduated in May from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. USC decided last year that it was finished with Napster after fewer than 500 students signed up, and it moved to Ruckus, hoping students would find that service more appealing.

Meanwhile, both Cornell and Purdue will no longer offer their students free music this year. An anonymous donor had paid for Cornell to offer Napster for two years, but the student government passed on a chance to keep the service by charging students a fee.

“There hasn’t been an overwhelming response to keep it,” says Kwame Thomison, Cornell’s student assembly president. “Students [who] enjoyed the service enough can pay for it themselves.”

Colleges started offering the services in part because they were concerned that the recording industry might try to hold them liable for their students’ copyright violations. So far, no schools have been sued by the recording industry.

Universities also have another reason for reducing illegal downloading: The large amount of bandwidth used by movie and music downloads chokes their computer networks. The subscription services complement university filtering programs that can identify users who are misusing school networks.

“The bandwidth that I recovered saved us $75,000 a year in network costs,” says Matthew Jett Hall, assistant vice chancellor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. The university’s Napster program requires users to pay $2 a month for unlimited downloads.

The Recording Industry Association of America says it has been happy with the progress these programs have made so far. “Universities tend to move not all that quick to do things like this, so it’s really quite an achievement,” says RIAA President Cary Sherman.

Some schools that don’t offer free downloads dismiss the subscription services as too costly for the results they achieve, especially because so many students now buy music from Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

“We were not in a position to offer an alternative to iTunes,” says Lev Gonick, the chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “The alternatives looked like they had more sizzle than steak.”

There is also little consensus among administrators about how successful the services have been in eliminating piracy. Although some say complaints from the recording industry have dropped sharply, no one can tell if that’s because fewer students are engaging in illegal file-sharing–or if the industry simply doesn’t want to go after schools that are spending money to combat the problem.

“The RIAA’s push to buy into these services strikes me as protection money. Buy in and we’ll protect you from our lawsuits,” says Kenneth C. Green, the Campus Computing Project’s director.

The RIAA denies the charge. “We do sue students and send takedown notices to universities that have legal services all the time,” says Sherman. Universities have a particular responsibility to teach students the value of intellectual property, he adds, because they are “probably the No. 1 creator of intellectual property.” And he disputes the idea that the subscription services have fallen out of favor. The number of campuses that subscribe will increase “pretty significantly” in the fall, he says.

Even at schools where more than half of the students use the services, few choose to buy songs. Only 2 percent of students at the University of Rochester in New York reported buying a song that they had downloaded from Napster in a fall 2005 survey of about 700 students. In the same survey, 10 percent said they downloaded songs from other services, not necessarily legally, after finding one they liked on Napster.

“There isn’t that much we can do,” acknowledges Aileen Atkins, Napster’s senior vice president for business affairs and general counsel. “If [students] have an iPod, they’re going to buy it on iTunes. It’s a fact of life.”

Links:

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

Campus Computing Project
http://www.campuscomputing.net

Napster
http://www.napster.com

Ruckus
http://www.ruckus.com