LOS ANGELES — As a college freshman, Will Mount feasted on the free but mostly illegal music available through online file-sharing software such as Kazaa. Now a senior, Mount has seen his free music fix become legal, thanks to an initiative by American University in Washington, D.C., to dissuade students from using its computer network to illegally swap music online.
If the music industry only had more like Mount. Many students still prefer to plumb file-sharing networks, despite efforts to make legal music available on campuses for free.
Shifting from the file-sharing free-for-all to a licensed music service largely has been positive for Mount, but he can understand why some students shun it. For instance, he can't transfer the songs to his iPod music player.
"If you want to get the music in your iPod, you have to go to other places to buy it," said Mount, 21, an Ohio native. "Or you are going to have to do something illegal to get it."
Limited song selection and other restrictions also are factors.
American University is one of about 50 colleges that have begun providing students with a legal means to get music online through services like Rhapsody, Ruckus, Cdigix and the now-legal version of Napster.
In many cases, services that can cost as much as $15 a month to the general public are being funded through existing technology budgets or student activities fees.
But American estimates that only about half of the 3,800 eligible students actually used the Ruckus service last spring, despite having an anonymous benefactor cover the subscription costs. (It's switching to Napster this fall and will start using student fees.)
"People downloaded it a lot in the beginning to create their playlists and then didn't do much after that," said Julie Weber, who runs the university's housing and dining programs. "Some people downloaded zero songs. They downloaded the (software), played around, looked at it, decided they didn't want to do anything with it."
Other universities found that although students use such services to listen to music on their computers, many continue to tap file-sharing networks or syphon digital music files from friends to load their portable music players.
Getting music on file-sharing networks can mean an unrestricted selection of tracks with no limits on copying if one is willing to take the risk of being sued for copyright infringement or contracting a computer virus.
Legal services typically offer some 1.2 million tracks, but limit how and where the songs can be heard — often requiring that students stay at their desks. Getting songs to transfer to digital players costs extra, and tracks may not work with all gadgets.
Market research conducted by American University found that a key stumbling block was the inability to move music from Ruckus to their players, including the market-leading iPod.
"The complaints were you couldn't burn music for free, you couldn't put it on iPods," said Bill Raduchel, chief executive for Ruckus, which provides music to more than a dozen universities. "No legal service is going to meet that need."
At the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y., about half of the 10,000 students have used Napster, which has been available for free since spring 2004, said Charles Phelps, the university's provost.
But internal studies suggest that virtually no Rochester students purchased songs from Napster — at 99 cents per track for the right to burn or transfer music to portables. Napster executives weren't surprised.
"Students are a little more transitory. They're not necessarily trying to burn a CD immediately," said Aileen Atkins, Napster's senior vice president of business affairs.
Music retailers say they are banking not so much on students buying tracks now, but on becoming paying subscribers after they graduate.
"For us, it's not about purchasing behavior," said Matt Graves, a spokesman for RealNetworks Inc., which operates Rhapsody. "We are more interested in introducing students at that age ... getting them used to Rhapsody."
Although the companies behind the legal music services continue to add new universities to their client roster, it doesn't appear they are driving away illegal file-sharing operations — although some university officials contend the legal services have curtailed the illegal activity.
"We suspect there's been a drop off," said Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, where about two-fifths of the 70,000 students statewide use Napster.
Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, said the response to the legal services show that universities also need to employ technical measures to block file-swapping of copyright music.
"We've had the impression that there has been a decrease in the amount of illegal activity on many campuses but not all," Sherman said. "That's a reflection of the fact that a legitimate alternative is not sufficient in and of itself."
Although universities have taken some measures to monitor file-sharing, many remain conflicted over the privacy issues raised by filtering data to block access over their networks. Nonetheless, they are likely to continue bringing in legal music options, if only to ward off any hint of litigation.
A Supreme Court decision in June established that Hollywood and the music industry can sue companies who can be shown to encourage customers to steal music and movies over the Internet.
"There's some language there that caused the hair on my arms to stand a little bit," Phelps said.
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