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How Napster and DRM arrived at University of Washington

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Opinion The stereotypical question one gets asked at the beginning of a new school year is, "What did you do during your summer vacation?" Me? I've spent a good part of the summer working on an agreement to bring a commercial music downloading service from Napster to the students living in residence halls at the University of Washington.

It is somewhat ironic that I ended up working on this project, having originally been dead set against getting the University involved in such a situation. This should have been a classic example of the free market at work - when businesses offering online access to recorded music come up with the right content in the right formats for the right price, university students will surely buy into the program. Wouldn't it would be interesting to know how many of those half-billion songs that Apple has sold from the iTunes Music Store have been purchased by students?

Unfortunately, we're not dealing with the classic capitalist markets that our business schools teach to undergrads. The entertainment industry has insisted on making student use of peer-to-peer networks a legal matter, issuing lawsuits against individual students accused of sharing music illicitly over university networks. The threat of lawsuits against our students for their use of university networks has put the higher-education community squarely in the middle of the relationship between consumers and distributors of online music, for better or for worse.

And so we find ourselves dealing with Napster and other commercial downloading services.

Yes - we know the formats aren't open and lock people in to paying subscription fees if they want to retain access to their music. It's very important to universities that the recorded record of human history remain accessible to students, teachers, and researchers - and remain accessible for the long run. Who's willing to bet that we'll have the tools to read files encoded with Windows Plays For Sure (speaking of irony) a hundred years from now? Chances are good we'll still be able to play mp3 files then. The industry's current drive to lock that content away in proprietary formats is a pressing matter of concern to all of us. We are very interested in new distributors (like Audio Lunchbox and Mindawn) that are using open formats such as ogg vorbis and flac as well as mp3.

Photo of Oren

Oren Sreebny

And yes - we know Napster doesn't work with Macs and iPods. We continue to try to talk to Apple and others about what kind of service they might offer to university students. And don't think that Napster and the others wouldn't love to have their services work on Macs and iPods, if Apple would open up its DRM schemas.

I've written about the quest for new and novel music that drives us music junkies, and I truly believe that people would continue to pay subscription fees just to have access to new music. It's hard to imagine anyone saying, "I've got all the music I'll ever want now - I'm sated." But the entertainment companies appear to feel differently.

And of course we know the coverage isn't complete. We certainly would like to see a compulsory licensing model for online distribution. And so would the commercial services, I'm sure. Negotiating the terms for online distribution of recordings can't be any fun for anyone.

So we're part of the conversation on the evolution of music and other digital media distribution. As students in our institution sign up and use the services we offer, we'll certainly hear what works for them and what doesn't. And if they don't like the services, or aren't willing to pay for them when they leave the University, then both we and our partners at Napster will learn from that experience.

Of course, I'm hoping that one thing the industry learns is that raising barriers like copy protection in front of listeners actually stands in the way of growing the market in higher-education. If companies like Napster really want to beat iTunes (as well as the peer-to-peer networks) the best thing they could do is just offer up the music without locking it down.

But I'm not holding my breath. ®

Oren Sreebny is the Director of Client Services and Learning Technologies for Computing & Communications at the University of Washington. In this capacity, he's involved in all sorts of higher-ed IT efforts, which he writes about in his blog. When he gets the odd spare minute he plays bass. You can reach him here.

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