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University of Rochester opens online music store

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The relationship between the music industry and universities just gets cozier and cozier.

The University of Rochester is the second school to sign up as a Napster customer, following the ground-breaking move earlier this year by Penn State University. All 3,700 students living in Rochester dorm rooms will have free access to the Napster service and its rich listing of tethered downloads. At present, the school will subsidize the monthly Napster service fee, but it warned that students may well end up shelling out for the program at some point in the future.

“Digital distribution of entertainment media is definitely the wave of the future,” said University Provost Charles E. Phelps. “I am very proud that the University of Rochester will be at the forefront of this emerging trend by offering students easy access to a high quality, legitimate music service.”

It's not at all surprising to see Phelps pop up as a champion of the Napster service. Phelps chairs a Task Force on Technology for the national Joint Committee on Peer-to-Peer File Sharing and is a member of the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities Technology Task Force.

For those of you following the online music business closely, these committees should be familiar. You'll recall that Barry Robinson, a Penn State trustee and RIAA lawyer, Grand Spaniel, Penn State's President and Cary Sherman, the RIAA President all serve on the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities Technology Task Force. These four men are doing everything in their power to turn universities into online music stores.

Like Penn State, the University of Rochester is receiving the Napster service at a heavy discount. Neither school will say exactly how much it is paying, but you can bet the price is lower than a 12-year-old's allowance.

"The only thing we can say is that the regular rate for the premium service is $9.95 per month, and we are paying a discount amount from that," said Robert Kraus, a spokesman for the University of Rochester, in an interview with The Register.

This discount is a sticky point from where we sit for a couple of reasons. First off, both Penn State and University of Rochester are billing themselves as pioneers in the legal online music scene - models to follow. This is all well and good when you are such close friends with the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). But should less fortunate schools expect the same price breaks? We think not.

This puts the business model being shoveled forth by Napster into question. A couple of privileged schools are leading the rest of the higher education community toward programs they may not be able to afford. But the pressure will surely be on these schools to fork over the full price for Napster or look like laggards in the copyright protection game.

Secondly, the University of Rochester may be tricking its students with a similar shell game.

"The university is paying but whether or not that is the model in the long term needs to be discussed," Kraus said.

Look out kiddies. Your university fees may soon be funding the music industry whether you like or not and by 2005, no less. Apple customers will feel the most pain in this plan, as they can't even use the Napster service.

"That is absolutely true," Kraus said. "(Napster) does not work for Mac users, and we are aware of it. We could not find one service that would fit all the students in this regard."

That's a pretty interesting position given Kraus' argument for why University of Rochester needs to be in the music business. Selling music is not "too dissimilar" from the school providing Internet access, athletic facilities and cable TV, Kraus said.

Well, it really is dissimilar. Internet access and athletic facilities make up pretty basic parts of a students' educational resources and all students have access to them. Most schools now rely on the Internet for the delivery of assignments and other course material. In addition, many universities require at least a couple of athletic credits. We've yet to see the music downloading requirement come into effect, but don't imagine it is far off.

With regard to cable TV, Kraus could not say whether or not the school subsidizes that service.

"In the face of the emerging digital nature of our society, (the Napster service) is in a way a logical step forward," Kraus said.

Logical or lucrative?

The emerging digital nature of our society has put peer-to-peer technology at the forefront of personal computing - like it or not. And yet not one member of a P2P company or even scientific user of the technology is on the Task Force on Technology for the national Joint Committee on Peer-to-Peer File Sharing.

As of today, P2P services have been deemed legal by US courts. In addition, companies such as Sun Microsystems, Intel and Microsoft are all looking into ways to tap the technology as an efficient and cost-effective means of file distribution. Wouldn't input from these companies be logical?

Beyond that, some very bright people have proposed sound business models for allowing everyone - not just Windows users or college students - to enjoy music and taste our culture.

It will come as no shock to see all of the universities with representation on the above committees roll out Napster-branded services over the next year. The only shock is that outsider universities are not questioning this before it's too late for them, their budgets and their students. ®

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