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The “Nittany Napster” Model

Are we at a “tipping point,” or just a smooth place in the road?

At first glance, the Penn State/Napster deal, which gives premium Napster music service to all Penn State students, is a win-win for all parties. Penn State gets relief from the RIAA, a nice service for its students, possibly some reduction in staffing costs relating to illegal Peer-to-Peer issues, and some great PR, including praise from the House and Senate. Napster gets great PR and something that was missing in its newly-hatched head-to-head fight with iPod: a built-in constituency that naturally tends to use Napster services. Plus, the students get what they're going to make sure they get anyway...lots of music.

But this is not a precursor of the much-anticipated transformation of the music industry, nor will the deal be without its own issues and problems.

I remember back in the early days of Napster when our work-study students would come to us and complain that their desktop machines didn't work and we would discover that the hard drives were absolutely, completely choked with music files. It took forever to figure out what they were doing and we never did figure out how to stop them completely. Storage space is not the issue now, of course; bandwidth and intellectual property are the major concerns.

Some institutions, like the University of Florida, are coping with the intellectual property issues of file trading by designing programs, like Icarus, that shut it down. Most are working on educational programs to make better intellectual property citizens of students, but are running right up against a generational divide. Penn State, whose president Graham Spanier is co-chair of the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities Technology Task Force, is taking another tack. And it's one that again puts Penn State in the innovative role, much like it was five years ago when it launched the Student Newspaper Readership Program that is now embraced by the New York Times and USA Today and is on hundreds of campuses.

Beginning with the next semester, students in Penn State residence halls are going to have complimentary subscriptions to Napster's premium service. Penn State is providing its students with what Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) calls a "legal online music marketplace...that compensates artists and offers listeners high-quality music." Leaving aside how well the current model compensates artists, as opposed to music companies, it appears that Penn State understands that what we middle-aged Americans think of as a "want" is actually a "need" for the young people on campus.

Some of the students are already complaining of course, that it's not really "free," since the cost is paid from their technology fees. But Spanier is a very smart guy, and those fees are not going up. No doubt Penn State can afford this because there are some overall IT-related savings from having fewer legal concerns and the near-certainty that the RIAA will leave Penn State alone for a while.

And the complaining students who already have iPod or use Macintosh computers, or who use older versions of Windows, are just reflecting the continuing hardware/software compatibility war, in which this is a battle where Napster takes some significant ground. Last week iPod users downloaded something like 1.5 million tunes while Napster users downloaded only 300,000. A week or two after the new semester, Penn State students alone will be helping Napster to turn that tide a bit.

Even though one misguided Congressman now thinks that this lets universities "return their bandwidth to the educational reasons for which it was created," clearly there will be significant bandwidth issues that arise when every residence hall student can demand streaming audio at any time they wish. But that's why Penn State is starting out with its residence halls only, which use a separate network and can act as a test bed for what the IT demands might be in the next academic year when the university will extend the service to all students, faculty, and staff, and eventually even to alumnae.

So, Penn State wins, (most of) its students win, and Napster wins, for sure. It's really hard to say who wins the most. And many other campuses are reported already lining up to follow Penn State's lead.

However, many students don't consider file sharing to be criminal behavior and will still want to engage in it outside of the "Nittany Napster" model. Coming to deepen the bumps in the road ahead are issues of DVDs and movies. Users don't want to "rent" music or movies, they want to own them. And ditto for software, despite the entirely different history of software sales and distribution. There still remain deep discontinuities between the traditional music, movie, software, and related industries and the power that technology gives to users.

But this is really not the tipping point. This is not a transformation of the music industry and certainly not a resolution of the larger issues facing intellectual property creators, distributors, and users in this information technology age. This solution smooths out the bumps in the road, for a little while, for higher education IT managers and that's nice. Given the nature of higher education's relationship with younger generations, which accept technologies as givens and resist tradition when there is friction between tradition and technology, the road ahead is still bumpy.

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