Online music swapping still rocks on campus
By Mackenzie Warren and Michelle Poblete
Gannett News Service
Brian Pollock is like a lot of college students. He parties between cramming for exams. His dorm room looks like it was hit by a tornado.
And his computer's hard drive holds thousands of music files acquired free on the Internet.
"On a good day, I'll download 100 songs," said Pollock, 20, a junior physics major at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He gets his tunes in the compressed MP3 format favored by most downloaders.
For Pollock and others like him, Napster used to be the ultimate free music source. But it is effectively extinct because the recording industry shut it down on charges of copyright violations.
Filling the void: so-called peer-to-peer sites such as Morpheus and Gnutella, where millions of PC users come together at any given time to swap music files that sit on their PC hard drives.
Because peer-to-peer (P2P) networks exist only virtually, it is harder for record labels to target specific lawsuits, and federal agents can't practically enforce copyright rules.
For college students who enjoy nearly universal access to the high-speed connections ideal for Internet downloading the abundance of P2P networks means there's little that's digital whether it's music, videos or software that's not available free.
Economics and opportunity
To many students, fast and free is the way they've come to consume music and video.
"Why would I ever spend money on music when I can get it for free?" asks Sara Melillo, 20, a sophomore journalism major at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "Do I feel bad for the artist? Of course. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to take advantage of a free opportunity."
Michael Asuncion, an 18-year-old sophomore at the University of Southern California, uses music-swapping services and a CD burner to make portable reproductions of real albums.
"Downloading a song takes less than three minutes," he said. "Before you're done typing in your next request, you've got the file."
Many students say they periodically download music, usually a few songs at a time while a few do it by the hundreds.
Sometimes, it just comes down to economics. Many students want to save the $15 to $20 a CD costs.
"It's out there, so why not take advantage of it?" said Matthew O'Neill, 22, a senior at Syracuse University in New York. "I feel like I've overpaid for music in the past, so I can rationalize burning CDs now. But I'm still shocked we're able to do it totally free."
When Napster opened for business in 1999, colleges debated intellectual property issues. But today, colored by their longstanding reluctance to filter anything that might be framed as a First Amendment issue, institutions' biggest problem is keeping up with bandwidth demand. At a campus bandwidth conference last year, many universities said their main task was to optimize network performance to keep pace with academic and recreational demands.
At Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, for example, tech managers use "packet-shaping" software that limits the amount of network resources music and video file types can occupy. Such restrictions are eased on nights and weekends, when there are fewer academic demands on the network.
Are movies next?
Still, solving the bandwidth shortfall created by music may beget a new problem with video.
"If you thought Napster clogged up networks, wait till 'Spider-Man' gets out," said Casey Green of the Los Angeles-based think tank Campus Computing Project. It studies college computer networks.
Video downloading is slowly gaining popularity but not nearly as fast as MP3s did. Students said that's because, even with compression technology, files take too long to download and occupy too much space on hard drives.
Thorvaldur Einarsson, 25, an electrical engineering graduate student at the University of Maryland, waited all night to download what he thought was part of "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones." "I managed to find part one of the movie and after a long download, we tried to watch it.
It turned out that the file did not include "Star Wars" at all but a repeated showing of the trailer for 'The Scorpion King,' " starring pro-wrestling icon The Rock.
But devoted collectors, with desire and patience, are out there. "There is a student down my hall who has every movie you can imagine," said Giselle Mammana, 20, a sophomore at Northwestern. "Instead of walking four blocks to Blockbuster, I walk four doors to his room." Mammana downloads several TV shows a month and four to 10 songs a day. She has made about 20 custom CDs containing more than 340 MP3s.
Even as new technology makes it easier to get more music free, ethical questions remain. And not every student feels entitled to free music. D.D. Zhou, a 21-year-old junior at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, uses music-swapping services to filter out bad music so she can purchase the good stuff.
"Before, I would just buy an album without knowing how good or bad the songs are on it," Zhou said. "When I find the really good music, I'll go and buy it."
Some students argue that file sharing helps independent artists compete with big-label bands.
"The whole Napsterization of music has taken the power of music from record-label executives and put it back into artists' hands," said Sherkhan Khan, 19, a freshman at Goucher College in Baltimore.
"Now, good musicians who aren't manufactured like 'N Sync and Britney can reach a large audience. Without Napster, I would have never heard of Tenacious D."