USC bucks growing MP3 ban

Defying a nationwide trend, university officials in the US are taking notice of student pleas to allow use of a controversial application
Written by Jennifer Mack, Contributor on

In a move that bucks a nationwide trend, the University of Southern California (USC) will announce this week that it will not ban the use of the popular MP3 trading software, Napster.

The move comes after USC officials held a town meeting with its student body on 17 February about the use of Napster. More than 70 universities have already banned the software, claiming it gobbles up too much network bandwidth.

Napster's software is a downloadable application that essentially allows people to turn their computers into servers so that they can trade their personal MP3 files. According to officials at Oregon State University, one of the first to block the program, in the week before the university cut off access, it was taking up 20 percent of the school's bandwidth.

Chad Paulson, an Indiana University sophomore who has been tracking the issue, is collecting signatures for an online petition in an attempt to get his university to open up a public dialogue on the issue. Paulson said he's sympathetic to Indiana University's bandwidth concerns, but feels more effort should have been made to educate students about network bandwidth issues before the ban was put in place there. "I don't see paying $10,000 (£6,200) a year for in-state tuition to go to a school that limits its resources," Paulson said. "That's the antithesis of higher education in America."

Oregon State University says it tried contacting individuals who were using Napster before instituting an outright ban, but lacked the resources to do so. "Blocking Napster is a short-term solution," acknowledged Chris White, network administrator for the university's residential computer network. "There are other programs out there, and we can't block them all." White said the university has begun tracking the use of another file-trading program, called iMesh, but so far has no plans to block it.

If the university had more resources, he said, it would have liked to follow the path set by the USC, which said it will put limits on the total amount of bandwidth students are allowed to use, but won't ban Napster outright. If students want more bandwidth, they can get a faculty member to sponsor their request and they'll likely get it, according to student body president, Tyler Kelley.

That's exactly the kind of solution Napster is hoping for. Elizabeth Brooks, Napster vice president of marketing, said the company is currently in contact with about 20 schools regarding ways in which to lessen the blow to computer systems. Brooks said solutions vary based on the school, but one of the best ways is for the university to prioritise its traffic. "Something that's recreational traffic can be put on a lower priority," she said. "Nobody ever wanted Napster to get in the way of educational traffic. That certainly wasn't our intention."

For a product that isn't even scheduled to come out of beta testing until the end of March, Napster has already made quite a splash. In early December, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a suit against Napster, alleging copyright infringement because the product allows people to access unauthorised copies of music from RIAA artists. Napster has said publicly that it is protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, because it's like an Internet service provider (ISP) and is not actually the entity copying the illegal files.

While Napster plans to continue to work with universities and to fight the RIAA lawsuit, it is forging ahead with plans for a full product launch in late March. The released version will feature added e-commerce options. Brooks said the company already has "millions" of users of its beta version, simply through word of mouth.

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