Upstaging porn and interactive gaming, this school year it was Napster.
The software program, which allows online users to trade audio tracks encoded in the popular MP3 format directly from their PCs, gained notice when it came under fire in a lawsuit filed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) charging that Napster helps foster a black market for illegal copies of digital music.
College students are arguably the most active digital music collectors, and when Napster came out last summer, they caught on quickly. By simply searching for their favorite song or an artist's name, computer users can easily download any tune that someone else in the Napster community has purchased from a digital music seller or, the more likely scenario, has "ripped" from a CD. And the price for all this digital music: nothing.
But students' increased usage of Napster hasn't been without cost, according to representatives at Oregon State.
"We noticed that there was a large amount of traffic that started at the beginning of the fall term, and we did an investigation and found out that it was Napster," said White, who is the system administrator for the Residential Computer Network (RCN).
Napster was "hogging" 5 percent of the university's bandwidth, White said, so more than 3,500 students connecting to the Net through RCN were permanently shut off from using Napster's software.
"We made the decision to block access in October before the RIAA lawsuit was filed," added Curt Pederson, vice provost for information services at Oregon State.
The university has an annual budget of $75,000 for bandwidth. Based on peak Net usage statistics, the campus could have gone over budget because of Napster traffic and other non-education-related activity, Pederson said.
"People are starting to download more streaming video, too. Left unmanaged, we estimate that our bandwidth usage would double every 90 days," he said. "It's really tricky trying to manage Net use on a college campus, because we want to encourage our students to explore, but we don't want to play Net nanny."
Oregon State cited its "Acceptable Net Usage Policy" as grounds for banning Napster.
Although no music trades actually take place on computers owned by Napster, students' use of the software potentially violates the school's policy on several counts. The policy prohibits sharing or storing unauthorized copies of any material on the university's network. The rules also bar "excessive use of network resources."
Many universities have similar policies. On top of that, the RIAA is working with schools to stamp out illegal MP3s through its Soundbyting campaign. In at least one case filed by the Justice Department, a 22-year-old Oregon University student pleaded guilty to violating the No Electronic Theft Act of 1997 by posting online illegal copies of software and music recordings.
Universities clamping down on Napster over beleaguered bandwidth may save themselves a phone call in the future from the RIAA complaining about alleged copyright violations. Northwestern University (NU), for instance, also has cut off the program, as has Oxford, according to MP3.com.
NU estimates that Napster traffic was sucking up more than 20 percent of its bandwidth, so it shut off the flow in late December.
"We did block access to the Napster site at Northwestern due to bandwidth concerns," said Susan Andrews, director of communications for Northwestern's Information Technology Division. "The decision is a result of resource consumption and not content."
It was the first time NU blocked a site since its Net usage policy was adopted eight years ago, Andrews added.
That fact that universities are barring Napster has angered some students. At least one student at Oregon State argues that the university's Net use policy also "encourages sharing of information, comprehensive access to local and national facilities to create and disseminate information and free expression of ideas," according to the campus' newspaper, the Daily Barometer.
Others said that barring Napster will not stop the flow of MP3s at universities, and that illegal trading is only creating a future market for sales of digital music.
"I'm actually out of the dorms and use Napster from my home Internet service provider," said Chris Hummert, a senior at Oregon State, who also works for Audioglobe.com, a site that posts MP3s by local bands.
"The music industry needs to rethink copyright laws and the ownership of music," he added. "The industry is behind the times, so people are taking matters into their own hands. But I do think people would start paying for (MP3s) if they are reasonably priced and available."