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The Dartmouth
June 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Napster agrees to charge users

Napster will start charging users for access to its music files, the site announced Tuesday in the midst of two lawsuits that threaten to shut down the online service that has effectively frightened the recording industry and changed how music is distributed for its 38 million users.

The move is unlikely to have any effect at Dartmouth or at colleges that have banned the use of Napster.

The announcement was made with the German media company Bertelsmann -- one of the companies that tried to shut Napster down for copyright violations. By allowing users to freely copy and exchange recordings over the Internet, Bertelsmann and other major recording companies argued that Napster would essentially put them out of business.

A growing number of colleges responded to the influx of Napster users on their servers by prohibiting its use.

Yale University was the exception in banning Napster because it was a defendant in the same law suit as Napster.

Most of the other schools that banned Napster did so because of the strain that it placed on their network systems.

At Dartmouth, Napster was never blocked -- though such a move was under consideration for some time.

"We don't condone violations of copyrights, but we're not policing that," Director of Computing Services Larry Levine said. "It bordered on a problem, but it's not a severe detriment to the network functioning."

At campuses such as Amherst College -- where file sharing programs were banned -- Napster's recent announcement seems unlikely to have any impact on official policy.

"We blocked Napster because it was slowing down our network to the point where it was unusable. We would only stop blocking it if it stopped being a problem for our network," Director of Amherst Media Relations Paul Statt said.

Napster said it would charge users a $4.95 monthly fee, although the start-up did not specify when the fee will go into effect.

At least part of the revenue will be shared with Bertelsmann, and part will allow Napster to become a for-profit enterprise.

Nonetheless, it remains unclear just how many of Napster's users will be willing to pay for access to the site.

With the appearance of other companies that offer similar services for free, it is anything but certain that users will remain loyal to Napster.

"It's not obvious to me that people are going to sign up for membership when there are alternatives," said professor of engineering George Cybenko, who teaches a course on high-technology issues. "But with 38 million users, if one percent of them signs up for membership, they're doing O.K."

The deal announced Tuesday amounted to a compromise by both sides. Napster will no longer be able to attract such a large number of users, and Bertelsmann will have less control over the distribution of music.

While Bertelsmann agreed to drop the lawsuit against Napster, the other companies involved -- Time Warner, Sony, Universal Music Group and EMI -- did not indicate that they would waver.

What makes Napster particularly vulnerable to being shut down is that it is run by a single, centralized server.

At the same time, other technologies -- such as Gnutella and Freenet, which are beginning to be used at places like Dartmouth -- do not rely on centralized servers.

And if Napster is indeed shut down by court order, these music sharing technologies are much more likely to continue.

The drawback of non-centralized servers, however, is that they take up significantly more space on computer networks.

Colleges already weary of the strain that Napster poses on their systems might be more willing to ban services such as Gnutella and Freenet.

Already at the University of Central Florida, for example, the use of Gnutella is no longer permitted.