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What went wrong at Wright State when Napster arrived

A lose, lose proposition

Opinion When the Napster music service arrives at Wright State University this fall, it will bring with it higher IT costs for everyone while delivering almost no gains to half of the student population.

Wright State is one of the six universities that agreed this week to test out the Napster service as a way of curbing illegal music downloads and avoiding lawsuits from the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). But behind the enchanting prospect of free music rentals for all is some fine print that Wright State students might find less appealing. This fine print includes a fee that must be paid by every student whether they own a computer or not.

Every Wright State student faces a $189 quarterly communications fee, which includes the cost of Internet access, telephone, voicemail, cable TV and now Napster. The school raises this fee every two to three years and expects to hike it if the one-year Napster trial proves valuable to the school, said Paul Hernandez, director of computing and telecommunications at Wright State.

At present, the school is subsidizing the cost of the Napster service and the new hardware and software needed to run it. Hernandez, however, estimates that students will end up paying an extra $8 per quarter for Napster once the one-year trial is complete.

"With that fee, we expect to break even and maybe even generate revenue," Hernandez said. "If we do make money, we might lower the cost. If we don't make money or lose money, then we probably won't renew the service."

For the record, Hernandez allowed us to take up a solid chunk of his time, was very forthcoming about the Napster service and was very pleasant to interview. Still, there is a big problem with his plan.

First off, only 70 percent of students arrive at Wright State with their own computers. This means at least 30 percent of the students will have to pay for Napster while only being allowed to use it in public computing labs. Sure, they can carry along some headphones and get jiggy with it while working on a paper, but these students cannot enjoy music while sipping a beer in their dorm room.

Secondly, users of Apple's Mac systems are once again left out in the cold by Napster. At Wright State, close to 17 percent of the students use Macs. So, we are talking about at least 42 percent of the students being forced to pay for Napster while having limited access at best to the service.

"We do get complaints from the Mac users," Hernandez said. Yes, we all do.

But these complaints are warranted.

Wright State won't reveal the exact amount it has been forced to shell out for the Napster service but did say the costs include the monthly per student fee, new IBM servers and software and consulting from Napster. One source estimated the cost of all this gear at $250,000, but Hernandez said that figure is much too high. He did, however, confirm our source's claim that a large donation from Sony will help cover the costs.

The Wright State students, who have proved very difficult to get a hold of during their vacation, are being taught an interesting lesson in capitalism here. Their school needs all 3,000 students on board to make the cost of Napster feasible, but only 1,500 students will have full, unfettered access to the tethered downloads their administration desires. Apparently, Wright State students are meant to think of each other as Comrades and take care of each others' critical music needs.

How did the school officials decide this was a good idea? Well, they based their decision on fiction.

"We saw the press with Penn State and Rochester," Hernandez said.

Napster signed earlier deals with both Penn State and Rochester, hoping to drag the schools in front of other institutions as proof that renting music could be a cost-effective way of keeping the RIAA off their backs. Both schools, however, have admitted to extremely favorable pricing with Penn State side-stepping questions about whether it pays anything for Napster at all. One of Penn State's trustees Barry Robinson happens to be a lawyer for the RIAA, so we're sure the idea of a sweet deal comes as a big shocker.

"Napster seems to be spending a lot of money on a lot of deals to get them a lot of press not to generate a meaningful business," a Real Networks executive told The Register.

Unlike Napster, Real has yet to explore the imaginary world of college music subscriptions. The company has instead focused on actual, paying customers who plunk down $10 a month for the Rhapsody service and then 79 cents a song for permanent downloads.

You'll find that almost every Napsterized school - all 8 of them - is using dot-com era methodology to justify the service. The schools receive the Napster service either for free or for a massive discount and plan to subsidize whatever costs they do incur in the short term. Then, one day, the students - or more accurately their parents - will wake up and discover they are in fact going to start paying for a service they don't really want and that a huge chunk of students can't even use.

"I don't really consider us as being in the music business," Hernandez said. But he is in the music business.

Hernandez admits that one of the key motivators in signing up for the Napster service was protection from the RIAA and its lawsuit machine. By targeting college students with legal action, the RIAA has managed to force a number of schools to consider opening a Napster shop. Do the schools really care about solving the long-term problem of music piracy? Not really. They just want the lawyers to go away.

The students using Napster will not really learn much about the value of copyrights or compensating artists at all. That's because, when their four years are up, all of their tethered downloads will disappear. That's when they will have to pick between paying $10 per month for the rest of their music loving lives or finding a more practical way of obtaining music.

Wouldn't it be smart for the RIAA to promote longer-term solutions to the P2P problem, if the technology is a problem, that see artists receive better compensation and that see all consumers benefit? Pretending P2P does not exist by subsidizing music rental services teaches little to our youth and does even less to put real money back in the pockets of the pigopolists. ®

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