net.wars: Taxation with representation

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 14 May 2004

This week, Wendy takes a look at the idea of student-owned copyright management and sharing systems.

Wendy M Grossman

One of this week's fun news stories was the travails of Ohio State University, which surveyed students to see if they were willing to pay $3 a month for the Napster service and whether that would cut down on illegal music downloads. This has been the occasion for lots of debates: "isn't this just a form of modern-era protectionism?" or: "should universities enter into exclusive contracts with private companies?" and even "isn't this a music tax?" and finally: "why should Napster gag a university from talking about its fee structure?"

The big problem with this lies elsewhere. At Cornell University, where I was an undergraduate in the mid 1970s, we had a student-owned, student-operated radio station and a student-owned, student-operated newspaper. These competed with several local professional stations, a Gannett-owned local paper, and a university-owned and professionally staffed newspaper. Both of these are and were self-supporting as commercial operations. They provided great opportunities: any student could try out for jobs at the station or the newspaper. Journalism majors and would-be broadcasters had a chance to learn their prospective careers under real conditions. Business students got the experience of running a real business in hands-on roles they probably would never have had any other way.

This pattern was repeated in student activities everywhere at Cornell. Cornell provided some help in the way of favourable rental rates on campus auditoria, but the Folk Song Club was otherwise self-supporting. Admittedly, the conditions that operate at Cornell in Ithaca are not reproducible everywhere: such operations are more likely to be successful in smaller towns, and you need a large enough university to have sufficient departments to draw upon.

WVBR-FM then and now plays - and pays royalties for playing - commercially recorded music. But it isn't your basic top-40 station; it broadcasts everything from rock and jazz to bluegrass and folk, including "Bound for Glory", the show where as a senior I got my start as a professional musician.

So the reason I think the present university contracts with Napster are wrong is that they give students no opportunities (plus the fact that today's Napster is an exploitation of a formerly popular name). Students should have a chance to experiment, to find out what they are good at. The point of going to college at all is not to consume knowledge but to learn how to learn and how to create knowledge. Paying for Napster gives students none of these benefits.

To be sure it's cheaper if universities negotiate a universal discounted rate than if each student makes a more costly personal arrangement. At Cornell in 1972, the equivalent would have been the telephone in every dorm room. You had to pay a deposit to have the phone company (there was only one, in those days) turn it on, but you paid only for long distance calls. Since there are many subscription music services and Napster is Windows-limited, students should be offered a choice of company.

But there's a better way. Universities where possible should encourage students who want a legal file-sharing service to set up their own. The operations should recruit computer science students to build servers, write software, and manage bandwidth. They will have to deal with such common user problems as varying operating systems and usability. The students should source music to put on it and struggle for themselves with questions of legality and copyright. They should favour student bands and musicians, giving those groups a chance to learn how to perform, how to record, and how to build a lasting audience. The student musicians in turn could make arrangements with marketing students to help them become better known both on campus and in the nearby towns - and even across the Internet, giving all parties concerned valuable experience. If the students running the server believe the demand is there they, not the administration, should negotiate terms with sources of commercial music, making a specific effort to seek out not just the top-40 you can hear on every radio station but niche material, including the kinds of music taught in the university's classes and sung or performed in its choirs and orchestras. A service like that would have real value and relevance to each individual university and to the students involved, just as running the Folk Song Club gave me the chance to study current performers to learn how to do the job I'd picked for myself.

Obviously, some universities do have students who do projects like this, and up until now the music industry has not been supportive. Jesse Jordan, for example, who souped up a search engine to make it index more effectively across all the computers on the network at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, got sued by the RIAA because some of the files his engine indexed were MP3s other students had downloaded. Faced with the likely costs of defending himself, Jordan handed over his life savings of $12,000 in settlement. The RIAA is only creating new "copyright terrorists" by such unjust and capricious behaviour.

The music business should learn better. It should help students, not sue them, because this is where tomorrow's innovative ways for the recording industry to make money are going to come from.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).