Downloads Evolve on Campus

One of the most fascinating aspects of the digital age is that clever students—or sometimes, clever dropouts—can undo the work of teams of PhD engineers.

Among the latest thorns in the side of the music industry are homegrown twists on Apple Computer's iTunes program that let users copy songs or song lists from each others' computers, as well as stream entire music libraries throughout local area networks, such as in college dormitories. So-called companion programs, such as "MyTunes" and "GetTunes," circumvent anti-copying code in iTunes software so that users can share music with each other—temporarily and permanently.

Apple's robust copy-prevention features have been heralded by the music industry as proof that a legitimate download service can work as both business model and distribution control. Despite their widespread loyalty to Apple, many students can't resist bending the company's software to their own purposes. The result is an ongoing game of technological cat-and-mouse between iTunes' designers and its users. Apple regularly issues updates for the software to restore its copy-control functions, and shortly thereafter, new companion software appears to defeat it.

"I don't know about the legality of it," recent Stanford graduate Allison Loh told Vauhini Vara of The Wall Street Journal about GetTunes. "It's a faster, more efficient version of a friend burning you a CD." (Downloadable music services, incidentally, are still debating how much to charge for "portability"—allowing subscribers to make transferable copies of their favorite tunes. The consensus charge seems to be about $15/month.)

A music industry executive said there are no plans to pursue students using iTunes or its derivatives as long as there are so many bigger problems to address. In trying to comply with the music industry's wishes—and to avoid legal complications—network administrators at colleges and universities throughout the US have been installing firewalls to block access to popular download sites. They also continually update the firewalls to cope with the same sort of technological warfare Apple engineers are dealing with. Imposing "bandwidth limits" on students using university networks is another common tactic, one that has earned network administrators the sobriquet "bandwidth police."

The download limit at Columbia University in New York City is 120 megabytes per hour, enough for about 30 individual songs, but not enough for wholesale piracy. Some network administrators report that bandwidth usage has been cut in half thanks to newly imposed limits. Another tactic is frequent automated erasure of files saved on communal computers. Lori Temple, associate provost for information technology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, told Sarah McBride of the WSJ that she and her colleagues "make it so downloading music is a horrible idea."

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