Napster Bans On University Campuses essay example

1,955 words
Abstract: This paper presents an overview of the recent Napster controversy, including a focus on the continuing practice of university campuses to block access to Napster servers. An examination of said blocking is given in terms of the ethical, legal, and practical issues that surround it. For some college students, Shawn Fanning is a god, but most do not even recognize his name. Virtually every college student, however, is familiar with this Northeastern University dropout's brainchild, Napster, a relatively simple MP 3-sharing program that has single-handed ly brought the issue of illegal MP 3 downloading and distribution to the public eye. While the MP 3 format has been around since the late 80's, it took Napster to make people stand up and take note.

With the use of Napster, finding and downloading MP 3's has become so easy that the use of MP 3's has spread like wildfire, especially in the college community. This rampant downloading on university campuses, however, puts colleges in a tight spot. As the MP 3 revolution has gained steam, the backlash from the music community has kept pace. From Metallica to Sony to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), musicians and music companies alike have brought lawsuit after lawsuit against Shawn Fanning and Napster. Technically, the verdict is still out, but in order to protect themselves from possible suits brought against them, many colleges and universities have banned Napster.

This is not the only problem however. Napster is notorious for being a huge network bandwidth hog, and that means network congestion and slowdowns on college campuses. This factor, possibly even more so than the threat of litigation, has pushed many colleges and universities to block access to Napster altogether. The decision to block Napster, however, is not a simple one. Clearly the legal issues are in flux, but compounded with the ethical and moral issues, a Napster ban on a college campus is a decision not to be taken lightly, and in my opinion, a step that should not be taken at all.

To begin the discussion leading up to the current trend of banning Napster on college campuses, an examination of the motivation behind the suits being brought against Napster is needed. As mentioned above, MP 3's have been around for quite some time now, and since their conception they have been used to make illegal copies of copyrighted music. So, why the backlash from the music industry now and not ten years ago? The answer to that question is simple: money.

Back in the days before Napster, it was much more difficult to find the MP 3 files for the songs that you wanted. What it basically involved was signing on to leech FTP server after leech FTP server until you found one with what you were looking for. Because of this, the proliferation of MP 3's was rather low, as was the hit the music companies were taking on their bottom line. Then came Napster with its fancy search capabilities and easy-to-use interface and presto, an MP 3 use explosion of monumental proportions. As music companies saw their profit margins dropping slightly they suddenly began to scream "Foul!" and point their fingers at the one discern able cause in their line of sight, Napster. Money is clearly the main issue involved in suits brought against Napster.

Anyone who argues that the recording industry is standing on solid ground ethically needs only look at their track record of ignoring ethical issues when they did not damage their bottom line. The fact remains, however, that the recording industry has a legitimate qualm, at least from a financial perspective, against Napster, which does seem to be cutting into their profits, especially around college campuses (Levy, 46-53). In their suit, the RIAA is alleging that Napster is guilty of tributary copyright infringement, a legal term that means they are "facilitating other people's [copyright] infringement" (Greenfield, 60-8). Apparently U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel agreed with this when she ordered that Napster be shut down in July 2000 (MSNBC Staff 1). Fortunately for the company, the federal appeals court issued an emergency stay only a day after this ruling and the site was kept up (MSNBC Staff 2).

There was another hearing in October 2000, but nothing has yet to be resolved, and virtually all of the suits brought against Napster are still pending. This, then, brings us to the issue at hand; namely colleges banning or blocking access to Napster because of these legal issues. As of September 2000, 40% of 50 top universities in the US had announced that they were currently, or were planning on, blocking access to Napster on their networks (Lara). One might rightfully ask why all colleges have not hopped onto the bandwagon of banning Napster. It is apparent that some universities feel that banning Napster would be akin to censoring the internet and restricting students' access to information. Others simply state that they provide internet access for their students and should not be required to monitor the network traffic for Napster use (CNET).

This is clearly an issue where ethics enters into the conversation. On one hand, some universities, under pressure from the music industry, have decided to block access to Napster, in effect censoring students' access to the internet. On the other hand, some universities have taken a stance against the music industry and politely declined to block Napster. Personally, I am of the opinion that universities should not be filtering the content they offer their students. This is not simply because I believe every college student should have access to MP 3's, but rather because I believe that censorship of any kind is wrong. When universities (and governments) start telling us what we can and cannot access on the internet, our basic freedom is being violated.

People should be responsible for filtering out content themselves. When universities start doing this, they begin to enter a dangerous area. In addition, Napster is not technically illegal itself; it is, rather, what its users do with it that is illegal. In theory, Napster could be used for genuine academic purposes. It seems ill conceived, then, to block Napster simply because the music industry does not like it.

Often, universities site ethical issues as their reasons for shutting off access to Napster servers. This, however, is flawed reasoning as well. Just because something is unethical, as illegally downloading copyrighted songs clearly is, it does not necessarily follow that the vehicle used perpetrate this unethical act should be blocked. As an example, a connection to the internet can be used for hacking exploits, which are unethical, yet access to the internet is not restricted. Napster, as stated above, could possibly be put into perfectly ethical use. Granted, this is not usually how it is used, but the fact remains that it could be.

Sighting an ethical issue as a reason to block access to Napster, then, I do not see as a legitimate reason for banning Napster usage. The only reason I see as a legitimate qualm of the universities that have banned Napster use is that Napster tends to take up a lot of bandwidth. At high levels of usage, Napster can literally congest a university network so much that traffic on the network is drastically slowed. This is particularly a problem in a university setting, where a certain level of network performance is assumed. Students and professors doing legitimate academic work or research using the network connection should be able to do so.

Their attempts should not be stymied by the typically non-academic work that is done using Napster. If Napster is creating a real network congestion problem for a university, then I believe the university has the right, and possibly even the responsibility, to block access to the Napster servers. It is not clear, however, that the blocking of Napster servers will actually solve the network congestion problem, or even the ethical and legal problems for that matter. The fact is, that Napster bans on university campuses are often easily circumvented using a freely available program called Navigator (web). This program allows Napster users to connect to so-called "open" servers, many of which are not blocked by the universities.

I took the liberty of downloading and installing this program, and within minutes I was connecting to dozens of "open" servers, each with its own set of users and MP 3's ready for download. In effect, a university student who had his Napster access "banned" could, within minutes, be connected to a Napster server not on the banned list. Thus, the problem would remain. In addition, it is quite possible that students might turn to other ways of downloading MP 3's, including Gnutella (. we go. com). It is true that Gnutella is not nearly as easy to use as Napster, but it is also true that it is an even bigger network hog than is Napster. Thus, if enough students started using Gnutella, the network congestion problem would persist.

Students might even revert to using leech FTP servers to find the MP 3's they want. In essence, the students who want to download MP 3's will find a way, even if it means getting their own DSL's or modems. It turns out, however, that all of these problems running around about Napster may become moot, for in the past few months the Napster war has simmered down considerably with the announcement of several agreements and plans for the future. In October 2000, Napster signed a deal with Bertelsmann AG, the owner of the Arista and RCA music labels, which states the company will provide funding to Napster for the "development of a secure trading system" (Dans by). In addition, in its new release versions starting in mid-January 2001, Napster began including links to CD Now, one of Bertelsmann's child companies, in its search interface (Barnes). Continuing along these more commercial lines, on January 30, 2001 Napster announced a plan to make the once free online community into a subscription based venture by June or July, 2001.

This, Napster hopes, will catch the eye of the other major record labels, such as Sony, AOL Time Warner, and Vivendi Universal, which still have their suits against the company pending. It seems clear, then, that Napster is a force to be reckoned with. With 40 million registered users late in 2000 and still growing, Napster is one of the most popular programs on the internet. Indeed, it seems to be a force that even the recording industry cannot stop, and one that it may end up simply creating a partnership with. However, if this turns out to be the case, the question of whether or not colleges and universities should ban Napster becomes even less clear-cut. There are numerous subtleties that a university must think about even if all of the suits against Napster are dropped, from whether they want to censor their students' access to the internet, to whether the traffic generated by Napster is creating an undue burden on the network.

With such a hotly contested legal and ethical issue as Napster, there are sure to be gray areas. Gray areas that, ironically, have nothing to do with MP 3's at all.