November 10, 2003
First, consider Adam’s suggestion that PSU/Napster will lead to more students complying with copyright law. As Adam states, this is hardly an ideal solution. Indeed, PSU/Napster does nothing to stop people from using P2P. Because of its limited artist selection and computer platforms (Macs and the iPod, in particular), many students will have no use for this system. Sure, it will give some a decent substitute, but many students (and, as a potential contributor, the university) will remain in legal jeapordy.
Next, I concede that my definition of the “university’s mission”, at least in my pho email, may be too narrow; however, I think you’d need to stretch even a sufficiently broad definition to make Napster/PSU fit.
Taking on the specifically cited counterexamples: first, college radio provides students with a way to learn important skills in a way that serves the student body as a whole. And though I have my gripes about the disproportionate money schools spend on athletics, at least that, too, involves students. PSU/Napster has no such student involvement. Second, if PSU/Napster is meant to serve music majors, I think the students have a decent case that their money was poorly spent. PSU’s Digital Music Library seems to be a narrowly targeted service, providing only the songs necessary for various classes. Of course, this difference makes sense, because PSU/Napster wasn’t created to serve music majors – it was meant to try to decrease P2P infringement – and I doubt Graham Spanier and the RIAA will tell you any different.
Finally, cable TV has some significant differences. No student can receive cable TV without someone laying down the cable lines first, and no one student can make the choice to do this – only the university can. And, once the university’s decided to do that, I can imagine that it is advantageous to simply provide one service for everybody, rather than adjust to individual demand. On the contrary, students can get Napster without the university’s help. Yes, they need the university to get the reduced rate, but that’s hardly comparable to laying the cable lines.
I think that points to a more generalizable difference between PSU/Napster and other college services. In many instances, the college pools money and provides the service when the collective action would be too difficult otherwise. I don’t think PSU/Napster fits that bill.
At the same time, even if I concede that other services are superfluous and thus that this is a difference in degree and not of kind, I think there’s still reason for serious concern. Given that this doesn’t address the underlying problems; that it won’t eliminate P2P; that it doesn’t serve a good size chunk of the student population; and that, even for the population it does serve, it will be of little interest because of song choice and DRM constraints (who wants to “own” a tethered download?), I think the disconnect from the university’s academic mission becomes a greater problem.
Again, this is why I bring up PSU’s subsidizing Roxio. With other university services, the imperfect fit is overshadowed by other benefits. Here, you’re locking the students into this one company’s service (including its restrictive contract), regardless of advancements by rival services, which students are very capable of taking advantage of themselves. If Rhapsody comes out with a far superior service 2 months from now, why should PSU students have to continue to pay Roxio for an inferior product? Why do they need the college to choose Napster for them? Want to bet that part of getting the cheaper subscription fee required signing a long term, exclusive deal? Like I said in my pho letter: “Certainly, there are advantages to pooling the students’ resources to, presumably, receive a lower subscription fee. At the same time, given how distant this is from the university’s mission, don’t these problems seem more severe?”
Similarly, that’s why I dislike the university’s current rhetoric. I know PSU calls other things “free” and supports other for-profits. But I don’t understand why that means the University has to try to market this to their students. If this were a good fit, I doubt the University would try to hard-sell it this way.
2. Mary notes that the negative reaction to PSU/Napster could be a sign of things to come for CLs. Her recommendation is spot on: “We need to think carefully about these objections and other aspects of CLs for the full Internet populace.”
Without a doubt, CLs have cross-subsidization problems which will inevitably upset some people. But some problems are worse than others, and, in CLs, I think there are likely to be plenty of off-setting benefits. Unlike in PSU/Napster, all musicians would be included in a CL, there’d be no DRM (and thus lessened compatibility problems), and (theoretically) anyone on any platform could use the service.
These differences do not dispose of the issue. However, I think it’s reasonable to say that the services are different enough that, even though PSU/Napster isn’t getting a warm welcome, I doubt it’s ultimately a good predictor of how CLs will be treated.
For more on this subject, see Netanel’s paper (49-55).