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Colleges left to muffle Napster

Some universities are trying to restrict access to online services that allow users to download music for free, which clogs computer lines.

By BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 26, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Adam Kratzer really hates paying for music.

The Florida State University junior much prefers just wandering over to an FSU computer, plugging into its high-speed network and downloading -- free of charge -- a CD's worth of songs.

Like hundreds of thousands of college students in the United States, Kratzer, 22, is a user of Napster, the controversial song-swapping software that has the music industry in turmoil.

"What can I say? I like the price," says Kratzer, who says he can't afford $16 for each CD.

But FSU says the university no longer can afford the strain Napster devotees are placing on its computer network. That's why it recently decided to pull the plug.

Officials say they had no choice.

At any given moment, as much as 30 percent of FSU's total computer capacity was being used to swap music files, officials say. That was costing taxpayers -- who foot the bill for computer access at Florida's public universities -- at least $150,000 annually.

"We simply had to make sure legitimate academic and research purposes were getting priority," says Larry Conrad, the university's associate vice president for technology integration.

FSU is just one of hundreds of universities trying to deal with the impact of Napster, which is being sued this week in federal court in San Francisco by the Recording Industry Association of America, which wants it shut down.

Music producers are most concerned about copyright issues; specifically whether Napster is guilty of copyright infringement.

Universities worry about that, too, since they could be held liable. But their biggest problem is the way Napster -- along with several other programs that allow for the free distribution of digitized music -- is clogging their information pipelines.

Consider the University of Central Florida in Orlando, one of the more than 100 schools that has banned Napster in recent months. Officials there say the software was using up to 70 percent of their computer network.

"Our system was just getting clobbered," says UCF spokesman Jerry Klein.

This scenario is not what American educators envisioned when they began furiously wiring university classrooms and dormitories several years ago. They saw high-speed Internet access as a way to revolutionize higher education.

Students would communicate with professors via e-mail instead of waiting for office hours. Classroom assignments would be posted on the Web, as would entire courses, freeing students from having to sit in overcrowded lecture halls. There would be almost no limits on academic research.

"Our students have been using their (Internet) access for all of those purposes," Conrad says.

But apparently not as often as they were using it to build their music collections.

"I do it, and most people I know do it," says Bob Hamel, who directs the student government computer laboratory at the University of South Florida.

"Why shouldn't we?" asks Kratzer, the FSU junior. "I wouldn't mind if they charged us a fee. It's not like they aren't always raising tuition, anyway."

USF is one of several Florida universities that has been closely monitoring Napster usage but has yet to take action.

"We prefer a hands-off approach," says Tim Moore, USF's Webmaster.

That philosophy is one reason there are surprisingly few restrictions on network use. Some USF computer labs block students from installing foreign software. Students also aren't allowed to use the network to set up a commercial Web site.

"We had one student who was using the university server to host a porn site a few years ago, but we shut that down," Moore says.

At one point, he says, USF officials estimated that music-swapping software was gobbling up to one-third of the university network.

But it's not just students who are doing the downloading.

"You can't exclude faculty and staff," Moore says. "They're just as bad."

The trading of music files online, now a part of popular culture, has been around for several years. It is the direct product of MP3, a compression format used to convert music on CDs into reasonably sized computer files.

Reasonable, however, is a relative term in the digital world. That's the problem for university networks.

A single song can be more than 5 megabytes, which is enough data to fill more than three floppy disks. Put another way, it is 150 times more data than a 13-page e-mail.

"Two of the biggest files you can download are video and audio," Moore says. "Even though they are compressed, they are still huge."

Computer hogging isn't the only headache Napster is causing universities. The music industry has redirected some of its ire at schools such as Yale and the University of Southern California, where music swapping is particularly popular. There have been threats of litigation.

FSU says it has one employee whose full-time job is to deal with industry complaints.

"If we can verify that Johnny Smith is running an MP3 server out of his dorm room, we will send him a note respectfully asking him to cut it out," Conrad says. "If he doesn't, we will shut him down."

University officials concede, however, that they are fighting a losing battle. Napster is just one of the many software services that can be used to swap music.

"There's Gnutella, Scour, Spin Frenzy. There's no way to stop it completely," says Hamel, the computer lab director at USF.

That's almost certainly true, says Bill Branch, UCF's director of computer services and telecommunication.

"We try to be aware of what these kids are going to do next," he says, "but it's a hopeless battle."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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