October 1, 2004

Students Evaluate Napster

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Cornell students continue to test — and debate the merits of — the Napster music software that is available for free this year to University students. The software, which allows users to legally “stream” high-quality music to their computer from a central server, has received flak from students who say that the service’s lack of support for Macs and the iPod music player is unfair.

“As a Cornell alum, I was dismayed to hear that the University has decided to enmesh itself in the ongoing legal digital music download wars,” said Duane Andrews ’99 in a recent online conversation. “However, I was outraged that, in doing so, the University went with Napster rather than seriously look at the features offered by Apple Computer’s iTunes, the most successful, so far, of the digital music services.”

The S.A. responded to complaints in a letter to The Sun, reminding readers that no final decision has been made about whether the student body will pay for Napster in the future. “The S.A. has created a Napster committee to research all possible legal downloading services, eliciting and analyzing feedback from students and finally exploring ways to fund downloading services at Cornell in the future before entering into any contract,” the letter read.

“Right now, it’s free. If you want to use it, great, if you don’t, that’s okay. We are sensitive that students using Macs can’t use the software unless they have Virtual PC,” said Kent Hubbell ’67, Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students. Hubbell has been involved with the S.A. in working on the Napster trial.

The letter from the S.A. also reminded students that this year, unrestricted donations to the University and corporate sponsors are picking up the tab.

Meanwhile, on campus, students have had mixed reviews of the contentious program. Tori Thompson ’07 said she was “somewhat” happy with the service and selection that Napster provides. She did say, however, that the service often said it was downloading the full song when in reality it only provided 30 seconds.

Other users have made similar complaints to The Sun. Thompson, who says that she has downloaded about 200 songs on the service, said that in the end the bad downloads were a minor annoyance which she could usually fix.

Thompson also felt that asking the entire student body to pick up the fee was a bad idea. “I would pay $16 personally for my own stuff but I think that if they’re going to charge students more for this in general, that’s [bad] because tuition’s already high enough,” she said. “Why bother with stuff half the people are not going to use anyway?”

When asked about whether she felt the Napster service was a deterrent to illegal downloading, Thompson said, “Maybe it will stop the freshmen from doing it illegally but for the upperclassmen I don’t think it will change anything.”

She said that many upperclass students use on-campus peer-to-peer networks to trade music files almost instantaneously.

In general trends, however, Napster representative Avery Kotler ’95 said that the service has received a lot of positive feedback.

He said that over 7,000 students were signed on, with an additional 50-100 signing on daily. “We and Cornell have been pretty pleased with that,” he said.

“The usage is very high — about 75-100 thousand songs being listened to a day. Meaning either a total of streamed, downloaded and played,” Kotler added. “That’s about ten songs a student.”

Kotler said that the main complaint the service has received is from Mac users, which was expected.

“Obviously there’s the feedback on the message boards about the lack of Mac compatibility,” he said. “But you always kind of expect the negative people to be more vocal and in this case we were pretty happy that, if this is the only issue, it is one we certainly knew about and were aware of.”

Kotler also countered that there really was no service similar to Napster’s that could work with both Windows and Macintosh.

“If there were a real viable solution that was Mac-compatible, you might say that students should be given an equal opportunity for it,” he said. “But from what I’ve seen and what Cornell was able to find on its own, there really wasn’t anything that Apple was offering. Essentially, as I understand it, the offer that Apple gave to Cornell was that Cornell could distribute their free software. That’s not really a solution.”

This case study in college/music store relationships has drawn national attention in the technology community.

Ashlee Vance, a technology writer for TheRegister.com, has been highly critical of Napster and its approach to universities.

“To me, the debate is whether schools need to be opening these kinds of shops at all,” he told The Sun. “I realize that downloading copyrighted music is a problem, but I’m not really sure that it’s these universities’ role to solve the music labels’ problems.”

He was also critical of the S.A.’s decision to move forward with the Napster trial. “I’m sure it would seem attractive, but I just think that they missed some of the larger issues at hand. If its Napster, it’s limited; if it’s iTunes, it’s limited,” he said.

Vance says he feels that, as long as this is still an emerging market, universities should step back and let students decide for themselves what service, if any, fits their needs.

Vance argued that the S.A. should consider if it should invest in any music service when that decision is made.

“I’d push them to define why this is a necessary service, why the school is essentially entering the music business,” he said.

One of Vance’s main objections to the service — that it is not available to all students — is one that has resonated on Sun message boards, especially amongst irate Mac and iPod users who are left in the dark — or, rather, the silence.

Kotler says that as far as the Mac and iPod are concerned, Napster’s hands are tied. The proprietary .wma music format won’t be available to Macintosh users until Microsoft decides to allow that.

“The fact is that they are a small minority and that they chose to use that platform,” Kotler said.

That argument was no salve to the auditory wounds of Matthew Kulick ’08. “Napster is for wimpy old men to make me pay them money,” he said.

Lenny Lantsman ’08 also offered criticism.

“For someone like me, it’s a waste of money,” he said. “It’s like Robert Nozick’s idea of taxation.”

Economic theory aside, Lantsman said that the service was slow and did not carry older music, which he prefers.

He said that the free peer-to-peer service, Limewire, worked better for him. No matter what opinion they have, the S.A. encouraged students to give them feedback on the trial as they work through the “ongoing process,” said S.A. president Erica Kagan. She said that a final decision would not be made until this summer or the beginning of next year.

Archived article by Michael Morisy
Sun Senior Writer