College correct in disabling Napster

Simply put: Napster is a program to allow users to easily obtain MP3 music files over the Internet. What makes it pernicious from the point of view of network managers is that it allows users to start many downloads at the same time, meaning that if 20 people are using Napster, there could be 400 to 500 file transfers of two to four megabyte files all happening simultaneously. Our connection to the Internet cannot handle this kind of load on top of all the usual traffic. Analysis of the traffic over our Internet link shows that the traffic generated by the Napster program along was consuming between 20 and 70 percent of available bandwidth.

Some have said that the College should just buy enough bandwidth so that the college community can use the Internet in whatever way they want freely. The College doubled its Internet connection this year to 4.5Mbits per second. This connection costs us over $75,000 per year. The existing connection is already struggling to keep up even without the additional load generated by Napster. We are planning continued upgrades of the College’s Internet connections, but even Williams can’t pay for this kind of growth indefinitely. We need to be reasonable and to manage our use of an expensive limited resource.

Some of you may be feeling left out and are wondering what an MP3 file is. MP3 is shorthand for MPEG3, which is a standard way of digitizing and compressing analog data such as audio and video. MP3 has become popular for converting Music from CD to a format that can be stored on a person’s hard drive and played over the computer’s speakers. There are a number of easily available software programs that will either produce mp3 files form a music CD source, or play the files on a computer equipped with a sound card and speakers. The quality of the sound produced by these files is close to CD quality.

Our concern as I’ve said above, is with managing the use of the College’s Internet connection so that people who need to use that resource for scholarly research and communication have it available when they need it. If some members of the College community use the resource for constantly transferring large files, people who want to make more usual use of the Internet find themselves suffering with what has become popularized as the World Wide Wait. Some of you who are familiar with the controversies surrounding MP3 files and their distribution may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned copyright law yet. We in the Office for Information Technology don’t want to police these things. We take the privacy of our users seriously and don’t stick our noses into what data people are storing in their accounts or on their computers. On the other hand, when those contents attract the attention of those who might attack the College legally, we get a little concerned.

When you buy a CD, you purchase the right to listen to the music recorded on it. You are legally allowed to make copies for your own use, but if you give a copy to a friend you are technically breaking the law. The recording artists and the music industry don’t get too excited about this because it’s a pain to make copies for lots of your friends and the copies (usually on cassette tape) are fairly low quality compared to the original CD. The problem with mp3 files is that you can make a copy once, and then thousands of people can download it from your web site and have sound quality nearly indistinguishable from the original CD. This gets the music industry types quite upset.

The RIAA, the Recording Industry Association of America, has been quite aggressive about going after copyright violators on the Internet. That, by the way is the law that is being broken: copyright. The RIAA has sued several Internet sites for hundreds of thousands of dollars. These suits have generally settled out of court so we don’t know what the damages have been, but the fact is that if you possess these files without having paid for the music in them you are breaking the law. If you then make the files available on a publicly accessible web or FTP site you run the chance of attracting the attention of the RIAA.

Williams College has twice received polite letters from the RIAA asking us to shut down servers. These servers have been located in student rooms in the residence halls. The Dean’s Office has contacted these students and they have agreed to shut down the sites. If the sites had stayed up, the College, and the students, would have been sued. Please remember that the artists who create music depend on the sales of CDs for their livelihood.

You may think that all recording artists are rich, but that’s really not true. When you participate in copyright theft, you are actually stealing from the artists who create the music. You are also exposing yourself to the very real possibility of being sued for large amounts of money. Please take copyright seriously and buy the music you listen to.

This doesn’t mean you can’t use mp3 files. You can store music that you have purchased in this format and use the players to make your own mixes of your favorite songs. There is also a lot of music that is legally available in this format for downloading from the web. Some bands have explicitly put the recordings of their live performances in the public domain and said that anyone can copy them any time. Just make sure that the music you are downloading is actually legal.

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