Napster debate gets academic
Emory, Tech dealing with attempts to quell popular music service
The music industry's battle against Napster is moving from the courtroom to the dorm room. ?With the federal court case against the online music-sharing service on hold, Napster opponents — like Metallica and Dr. Dre — are trying to convince colleges to keep students from swapping songs on their networks, which some musicians say is cheating them out of royalties.
At least two local colleges have gotten caught up in the controversy, and neither seems happy about being stuck in the middle. At Emory University, administrators are trying to keep track of overuse of Napster while still respecting students' privacy. And Georgia Tech has decided outright not to ban the service on its computers, but officials aren't thrilled with having to take that stand.
"Napster probably isn't the best thing to hang a First Amendment argument on," says Bob Harty, a Tech spokesman. "Napster shouldn't be the line in the sand."
But Napster is becoming that line. The service creates a giant database of songs and albums on the hard drives of its members, and allows users to share those files with one another for free. A user who wants to hear a song from the radio just finds another member who already has the song on a hard drive and uses Napster to make a copy onto his own computer.
This summer, the Recording Industry Association of America, along with Dre and Metallica, sued the service in federal court.
Napster and its opponents were in court again Oct. 2, arguing before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Napster wants the court to overturn a lower court's injunction shutting down the service — an order still in place although the appeals court is allowing Napster to operate until a final decision is reached.
The appeals court is expected to issue its decision later this month.
It only seems natural that this would play out on campus. Though Napster itself didn't disclose figures, independent studies have indicated that as many as four out of five college students log on to Napster every month. And colleges are a logical market for the service, with high-speed connections and kids who love trying new music but prefer to save their money for beer.
Three universities were defendants in the original suit against Napster, but in September, lawyers for Metallica and Dre upped the ante with a letter sent to about two dozen universities — including Tech — asking them to ban Napster on their networks, calling it their "moral, ethical and legal obligation."
"The implied suggestion is that we do what they ask or there is a threat of litigation," says Harty. "You don't take that lightly."
Georgia Tech lawyers don't think the institute would be liable — in fact, the law limits the school's ability, as an Internet service provider, to knock certain sites off the system, Harty says. But Georgia Tech doesn't want to have to defend the case to find out, he says.
And administrators don't want to capitulate on Napster and then worry about campus groups asking Tech to block access to porn sites, gay sites or political sites, Harty says.
In fact, the whole issue puts colleges in a bind. They want to stand for academic freedom without limiting access to anything on the Web. But universities also are home to authors, artists, musicians and scientists who make their living on ownership of their intellectual property, and they aren't comfortable defending a system that lets people pass copyrighted material back and forth.
"We don't support people breaking copyright law," says Susan Mistretta, the manager of learning technology in Emory's information technology division.
Napster itself won't comment on what it might do if its opponents continue to target colleges, says Tobey Dorschel, who works for a public relations firm hired by the company, though Napster officials criticized the letter in a statement.
Regardless of the principle involved, Napster has created some problems for Emory. The service is so popular there that there have been times that half the university's bandwidth was taken up by Napster files moving back and forth, Mistretta says. That's usually in the middle of the night, but it can create problems and make the Internet connection slower for everyone and even knocking some users off the system, she says.
Despite fears around campus that the university would ban Napster entirely, partly sparked by stories in the Emory Wheel indicating administrators could track Napster users by looking for huge file transfers, the college hasn't tried to keep students off the site.
But the administration has placed ads in the Wheel asking students to configure their Napster accounts so that users outside the Emory network can't use the service to take music files from computers on the Emory network, which can account for a lot of the traffic. In other words, Emory would rather students take files and not share them.