Music-sharing remains popular

Daniel Schack

One year after Northwestern blocked access to Napster, NU sophomore Dan sits at his computer searching for music files to download illegally.

When he fails to find Metallica songs using the online file-trading service Audiogalaxy, he switches over to another service, iMesh, and a few clicks later an MP3 of “Sad But True” zips onto his hard drive.

Thousands of NU students lost their main source for MP3s when NU Information Technology closed off access to the Napster domain last Winter Quarter. But since then, Dan and many students like him have turned to the many outlets that sprouted to take Napster’s place.

Though administrators blocked Napster because it hogged network bandwidth and presented copyright violation issues, the new crop of file-trading services pose many of the same potential problems.

NUIT blocked access to on the network after Dec. 29, 1999, after finding that up to 30 percent of the network was tied up by Napster users.

“It’s like being on the highway,” said Roger Safian, information security coordinator for NUIT. “The more people on there, the slower you’re going to be able to go.”

Blocking Napster reduced traffic on the network, resulting in a noticeably speedier connection, he said.

But when students returned to campus after Winter Break, NU’s network demands exceeded the network’s capacity. So in May, NUIT increased the network’s capacity, or bandwidth, from 12 megabits per second to 18. NUIT expanded the pipe again in September to its current capacity of 28 Mbps.

Tim Ward, manager of operations and engineering for NUIT, said while network usage now is in a “luxurious state,” the university tends to fill whatever capacity NUIT sets.

“Even by the end of the year, if the growth rates are normal, we’ll need more bandwidth,” Ward said. “It’s the classic ‘Field of Dreams’ quote: If you build it, they will come.”


And just as the network has expanded to meet user needs, so too have online file-trading programs expanded to serve the growing number of college students who are unable to access Napster.

Among the most popular:

? iMesh, a software application that allows users to trade all files, from MP3s and movies to software and school assignments

? Audiogalaxy, a largely Web-based service that uses a “satellite” application to search for users’ shared MP3s

? Napigator, a program that gets around NU’s Napster firewall by connecting to individuals who set up their own Napster servers outside the blocked domain

Jeff, a Northwestern freshman, has so far downloaded 1,200 MP3s over his Ethernet connection using services like Audiogalaxy and the now-defunct Scour Exchange.

“It’s a curse because it’s a waste of time,” said Jeff, who requested his last name not be used. “It’s just so convenient.”

Jeff used Scour Exchange until that service shut down in November, but on Saturday he tried to convert his friend Emily to using Audiogalaxy, his new obsession.

Emily, also a freshman, is not a die-hard downloader like Jeff. She has about 70 MP3s on her computer, which she found with Napigator.

Another NU student, Melissa, said she plays MP3s on her computer for up to 16 hours a day, even when she’s sleeping. Melissa, who requested her last name not be used, has downloaded about 1,000 MP3s onto her computer.

“Other than being incredibly inexpensive, it’s a lot easier,” Melissa said. “The technology is out there. There’s no way to stop it now.”

And if NUIT administrators can’t stop music downloading on the network, neither will they be able to staunch the increasing demands on network capacity.

“It’s something that keeps getting them by surprise,” said Ed Sawma, senior residential networking consultant, on NUIT’s consistent need to increase the network’s capacity.

But Sawma said that with continued bandwidth increases, NUIT possibly could lift the Napster ban.

“NU should accommodate the bandwidth needs of the students,” Sawma said, adding that he understood why NUIT blocked Napster last year. “I would hope (there) wouldn’t have to be a permanent blockage of Napster.”


But there’s a bigger reason NUIT administrators can’t stop illicit downloads – they’re not looking.

Actively looking for copyright violators would make NU legally responsible if administrators failed to find them, Safian said. So to limit liability, NUIT doesn’t look.

“We don’t have a group of Gestapo-like folks who are looking for people who are using sites for one purpose,” Safian said. “We’ve never done anything like (blocking Napster) before.”

Still, NUIT stripped about 15 students of their network privileges Fall Quarter, many of them for copyright violations. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, if NUIT discovers a specific instance of copyright infringement on the network, it must determine the extent of the violation and take appropriate action.

And when NUIT blocked Napster in the first place, one reason was to prevent students from unwittingly sharing their files.

“Since we have already seen instances of unknowing distribution of copyrighted MP3s, NUIT does not wish to see members of our community exposed to potential liability,” an administrator wrote in the Dec. 29, 1999 e-mail that announced the Napster ban.

But in the face of illegal downloading that could be even more widespread than during Napster’s use, NUIT’s hands are tied – publicly discussing the issue could make NU liable, Safian said.

“It would be a very big mistake for the university to sponsor something to say, ‘Here’s how to responsibly pirate music,'” Safian said, although he personally will answer student’s questions.

The Recording Industry Association of America, which has taken part in the lawsuits against Napster, takes a harder line.

“Many individuals see nothing wrong with downloading an occasional song or even an entire CD off the Internet, despite the fact it is illegal under recently enacted federal legislation,” says a notice on the association’s Web site. The site provides information about current laws and penalties specific to online piracy.


But students interviewed for this article expressed little sympathy for artists or the RIAA.

Of the 2,761 song files on his computer, Dan, a Northwestern sophomore, said he downloaded about 1,000 of them off Northwestern’s network.

Dan, who requested his last name not be used, said the recording industry is not being harmed because of MP3 downloads.

“It’s nice to be sitting around your room and say, ‘Remember that Guns N’ Roses song,’ and be able to find it in two minutes,” he said. “What they’re assuming is that people are going to download the copyrighted music and never buy the albums. If I like it, I end up getting the CD.”

Some bands even encourage audience members to record their performances and distribute them online, under the understanding that the songs won’t be sold for profit, he said. The technology also allows groups without a large recording distribution to have their music heard.

“I wouldn’t say I’m really into mainstream music,” Dan said. “There’s a lot of music that’s out there, but it’s not being shoved down your throat, so you have to go out and find it.”

Dan, who plays in a band, sat recently with friends playing music the old-fashioned way – on a guitar. His bandmates worked out the chords to the Phish song “Yamar,” which they heard the group play at a concert. Dan said he wants his band to record the song and put it online, where other friends would be able to easily find and listen to it.

But at post-Napster NU, new technology has found a prominent place even alongside old-fashioned instruments. One band member picks his guitar, another clicks his mouse, and a few seconds later they’re playing along with a live MP3 of “Yamar.”