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PSU's Spanier proposes schools charge students a fee to download music

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

College students are used to paying extra for all kinds of campus perks, from the right to sweat it out in sleek fitness centers to high-speed Internet connections.

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So what about charging those students for the privilege of legally downloading copyrighted music in their dormitory rooms?

Penn State University President Graham Spanier sees that as a way to discourage music piracy by students at his school and others nationwide. He is advancing the idea as a means of removing what has become a sore point between the recording industry and higher education.

Spanier co-chairs a national panel made up of campus leaders and entertainment executives currently looking into illegal file sharing. He held private meetings in Washington, D.C., last week to discuss the idea with those executives.

In an interview yesterday, Spanier called the talks "exploratory." Nevertheless, he hopes pilot programs could be put in place in a year or two on several campuses, including his own, that would pay fees to the recording industry for access to music files and recoup that money through fees charged to students. To date, though, he is aware of no school that has committed to the idea.

"The way I see it, the ideal model would be where the university pays a fee on behalf of its students, particularly students in the residence halls because they are the ones that have the high-speed bandwidth," Spanier said.

"It would be similar to what we do now in residence halls throughout the country with regard to cable TV service," he said.

Already, students can use dorm room technology to get access to movies or scan library databases, he said.

If students accept those fees, he asked, why not one pertaining to music?

"There's nothing that rivals student interest in music," he said.

On that single point, the recording industry is likely to agree.

Its unit sales of music fell by 11 percent last year, by 10 percent the previous year and by 7 percent the year before that, said Cary Sherman, president of the Washington, D.C., based Recording Industry Association of America.

Sherman said what's behind most of the stark downturn is software that lets computer users download free music files from each other. And he said the conventional belief is that college-age adults are the biggest file sharers.

Sherman, who co-chairs the panel with Spanier, said the industry will be interested in hearing more about Spanier's plan.

"It's ... useful to get the discussion going," he said. "There are a lot of issues that need to be considered. The first is that there are a number of rights holders in the music industry that would need to buy into this.

Spanier said it's far too early to suggest an appropriate charge.

But he said any campus fee would have to be mandatory rather than optional.

Beyond that, Spanier said, a student in a dorm room who is given a choice between paying a new, optional fee and continuing to download at no cost by other methods wouldn't have a hard time choosing.

He said higher education and the entertainment industry would have to settle on a fee structure that is not overly burdensome to schools, yet provides a level of compensation that is acceptable to copyright holders.

A dozen or so online music services are sanctioned by the recording industry. Spanier said a school could pay one such service the fee, and that service would in turn compensate the rights holders.

Penn State, like other schools, is responding to industry complaints of copyright infringement by penalizing students caught illegally swapping files. It recently suspended high-speed dormitory Internet privileges for about 220 students accused of illegally posting copyrighted material, said Penn State spokesman Tysen Kendig.

Members of Congress made it plain to Spanier when he testified there earlier this year that they are prepared to act if colleges do not get a handle on student violators.

"Members of Congress have told me, if you don't solve the problem yourself we will pass legislation and you won't like it," Spanier said yesterday.

He said the industry also has something to gain by making a lawful system of music copying work.

"This is a potential market of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of teenagers and young adults," he said. "They could be developing lifelong customers."

Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.

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