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Penn State's pigopolist pork is not smelling sweet

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For those keeping a close eye on the music download service scene, we'd like to introduce you to Barry K. Robinson.

Robinson sits on Penn State University's Board of Trustees, and, as it turns out, serves as senior counsel for none other than the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). This is a handy coincidence. You might recall that Penn State announced a deal last week to subsidize the Napster music service and give all of its students free music downloads.

Well, Penn State says all of its students can use Napster, but, truth be told, the service actually only works on computers running Windows, and we'll get to that later.

Penn State's deep ties to the RIAA are intriguing. Along with Robinson, the school's President Graham Spanier serves as co-chair of the Committee on Higher Education and the Entertainment Industry with Cary Sherman who is President of the RIAA. Given these rather friendly pigopolist connections, it should come as no surprise that Penn State is leading the way with this free music service, touting it as a potential model for myriad universities.

On the record, Penn State says it's funding the program by tapping into its IT budget, which includes a $160 per semester fee paid by each student. The school sees the extra Napster cost as a nice way of avoiding lawsuits from copyright holders and keeping network bandwidth under control.

It is offering up a gracious form of technology known as the tethered download to pull the system off. This means students can stream and download as many songs as they like, so long as they are attending Penn State and on the school's network. Pull their computer off the system, and the songs disappear.

There is, however, some concern among the students that their money could be better spent on improving the school's IT resources instead of feeding copyright cash back to the music labels for DRM-infected product.

"I'd rather be able to download and burn CDs," Jacquelyn Virgi, a junior told the Penn State paper. "It bothers me that I will pay (for Napster) because I won't use it."

Penn State has over 40,000 students all of which will receive the $9.95 per month Napster service for free. Hypothetically, that puts Penn State's monthly Napster bill at $400,000 and well into the millions for the entire school year. Neither party is releasing the actual contract details, but one Penn State student e-mailed us with a tempting theory as to how much the service costs.

"The spin they're using to sell it to the faculty is that the costs are next to zero because Penn State will be the pilot school," writes a chap we'll call Brian. " I.e. if it works here, other schools could be stuck paying the higher fees.

"Based on the administration's connections with RIAA, we, as students at Penn State, are really along for their ride and little more. I don't see us as having ANY say in the matter or getting much of the music we want."

It's just a theory, but wouldn't it be a bright idea for the RIAA to tap its cronies at Penn State to bill this service as a model for all universities, especially if Penn State gets first dibs at a massive discount. And isn't nice that Napster gets to come along for the ride? Apple is claiming 80 percent of the legal download market. Forty-thousand students swapping files would help kick Napster's share up a notch or two.

Another good question the Penn State students raise is why their school did not pick Apple's iTunes Music Store as the service of choice. It runs on both Macs and Windows-based PCs.

At the moment, Napster is putting all of the onus on Apple to switch sides.

"We've always said we would like nothing more than to serve the Apple users," said Seth Oster, a Napster spokesman. "Apple does not want to offer DRM that is compatible with any services other than its own. We are offering (our service) the way we can."

So Apple is at fault for using an open file format, instead of the proprietary WMA from Microsoft? And why is Apple's DRM weak? The RIAA has agreed to use it.

"We're serving 97 percent of the users," the Napster spokesman continued. "What don't you understand?"

Well, for starters, it's not clear why a university would force a service on its student base that all of the students can't use and that backs a closed set of technology. And, it's curious that you say Napster is testing software to let Apple users access your service but then add that 3 percent of the market is not important.

This isn't some program that was rushed to market so the RIAA could save face, Penn State could look like a tech leader, and the new "legal" Napster could get some good press, right?

"We could argue all day."

True.

But for the time being, it looks like a large chunk of the Penn State student body is stuck paying for a service they don't really want, in part, because the heads of their school happen to be very, very close friends with a lobby group. ®

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