Students give Napster mixed reviews

Ashley Liebre looked confused as she sat in front of her computer last week. The GW junior was attempting to download the University’s free, legal file-sharing program – Napster. Nearly 2,000 students have downloaded GW’s free version since its Sept. 1 introduction, and Liebre decided to download it last week after having problems with other file-sharing programs.

“I like it because I’m pretty sure I’m safe from viruses, which I have caught before from other programs,” she said after downloading and experimenting with the new Napster. However, she said she found it difficult to install the program to her computer.

“It’s an interesting process,” she said of the registration and downloading procedure. “If I wasn’t doing this through the GW Web site, I don’t think I could have ever figured this out. I didn’t know a lot about the program, and I’m really trying to do it myself.”

Her excitement built as she waited for the program to finish downloading, anticipating all the free tunes she could blast from her desk top. Liebre had immediately decided her first downloads would be from the Dave Matthews Band, her favorite group. However, with the program successfully downloaded, she was disappointed with the product in front of her – like many other popular singers and popular songs, Dave Matthews Band can only be bought, not downloaded.

But wasn’t the introduction of Napster to campus an effort to provide students with a free and legal file-sharing system?

“I want Dave Matthews … what does view album mean?” she said, referring to the options on the screen in front of her. “I can listen to this for 30 seconds? But he’s so popular among college students.”

She thought the band’s popularity was the reason their titles must be purchased, so next she attempted to download music from a less popular artist, Sinead O’Conner. However, the only song that interested Liebre has to be bought. A search of a few more artists – Janet Jackson, Jay-Z, even The Eagles – produced the same results.

“This is really conniving,” she said. “It’s cool for parties because it plays the music, and you don’t have to pay for it. I can totally understand that if you want to burn it, you pay for it. You’re making a copy. But I can’t understand why not all of the music is available for download.”

Liebre’s Napster experience is becoming the norm among GW students. Some enjoy the program, but most say it is lacking. Despite the varying reactions, 1,900 students have downloaded Napster. Director of Technology and Communication for Student Activities and Support Services Alexandra Kim called it a “reasonable” number.

“We have received some feedback in the student survey that is part of the Napster registration process,” Kim wrote in an e-mail last week. “The student feedback really ranges from appreciating and wanting to use the service to others expressing that they do not think it is a good idea at all for GW to provide this service.”

She added that there have not been any problems with the program, and SASS will be assessing student concerns later in the academic year.

Students familiar with the older version of Napster, popular during the ’90s heyday of music piracy, might not recognize its grown-up, legal counterpart. The Napster offered through GW no longer has its delightfully spartan gray fa?ade or the messaging service. The new Napster has more complex graphics and is not for those whose computers are routinely on the fritz. Running a program like AOL Instant Messenger simultaneously can delay an already slow program.

Napster’s opening page is a billboard with advertisements urging users to buy everything from new albums, advance tracks and exclusives from artists such as Kanye West. Another feature called NapsterLive compiles has-been and no-name performers attempting to generate a fan base by selling discounted music. It’s chock-full of information.

“I like how, when you pick a song, it also shows the album the song is from and also recommendations of similar artists,” Liebre said.

Freshman Adriana Ingenito also said she likes the new program.

“I actually didn’t know it was illegal before,” she said. “I’m only using Napster now. I can download almost any song I want and listen to it, but I don’t like that I have to pay to burn it.”

Most students are treating Napster as a mixed bag. One of the biggest caveats to the program, as Liebre experienced, is that many of the most popular songs are a “pay only” option, meaning that they cannot be downloaded for free. Once students download a song, even the freebies, they must pay to copy it to any portable device. Even students who were fans of the program cited this feature as a nuisance.

“I downloaded Napster. It was a great idea, the ability to download it and play it on your computer,” senior Jason Goldberg said. “It’s understandable that you can’t trade it. The real problem is that the Napster-playable songs aren’t the most popular ones. So the service is a little misleading.”

GW is one of five colleges around the country to participate in a deal with Sony to provide free Napster to students. An unnamed donor paid for the University to enter the contract with Sony, which will expire in one year should GW choose not to renew. The Hatchet reported in August that renewal of the contract depends largely on student reaction to the song catalog.

In a September e-mail, Kim stated, “I think the program is too much in its early stages to speculate on renewal.” She also said that factors other than student reaction would include cost and other available products.

Providing Napster to the University is costly; although an anonymous donor is paying for the GW program this year, a similar program at Cornell University costs $200,000 a year.

Some students said they think the cost is definitely worth it.

“I think it’s a very good service,” sophomore Justin Neidig said. “I had used another file-sharing program before, but now I don’t have to worry about viruses or my computer dying.”

If the University were to allow the contract to expire, students would lose all the music they had downloaded unless they pay to burn it to a portable device. If the contract was renewed, students still on the network would be able to keep their songs. But seniors, who would no longer be on the network after graduation would lose their music, unless they had paid for it.

“I’m a senior. If I’m going to lose the music at the end of the year, there’s no reason for me to download it,” senior Conor Savoy said. “If I was an underclassman, maybe, but it’s a trial. Why deal with it?”

Other students also said they were unhappy with the possibility of losing a year’s worth of downloads if GW chose not to renew.

“When I use KaZaA, I get it for free – and I get to keep it,” junior Brittany Baron said.

Other colleges experimenting with Sony’s offer include Cornell University, Middlebury College, University of Miami, University of Southern California and Wright State University. Students can now download the legal program from the University’s Web site. However, the new Napster only works in University computers and with Windows XP, leaving Mac users and off-campus residents without a free, legal file-sharing option.

Most students see the program as a temporary fix – the songs they can download are great, but the songs they really want can’t be downloaded. After finally downloading the program to her computer and giving it a few trial runs, Liebre reached a conclusion about the University’s latest service to students.

She said, “I absolutely do not think the University should renew this contract.”

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