As students return to campus from summer vacation, university administrators wrestle with the legal and ethical questions surrounding the controversial program from Napster. Napster is due back in court sometime between October 2 and October 6 in San Francisco, according to published reports, where a three-judge panel from the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) accusing the company of copyright infringement.
Napster allows its users to trade MP3-format music files over the Web, which violates music industry copyrights and robs artists of royalties for the reproductions, according to the RIAA. Napster says it is protected under the "fair use" doctrine, similar to the use of videotape recorders.
College students with broadband access to the Internet from their dorm rooms have caused headaches for network administrators, prompting some to ban the program.
Gartner polled administrators from 50 public and private universities and found the Napster issue raising serious moral and legal questions, the market research company said in a statement. "Schools must consider the implementation of ethical standards and policy guidelines, even written agreements, that explicitly state that copyright infringement is illegal and will not be tolerated," said P.J. McNealy, senior analyst for Gartner's e-Business Services.
However, universities must also weigh First Amendment and privacy issues for students, said Reid Christenberry, associate provost for information services at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Georgia State restricts the use of the program -- and other bandwidth-hogging file-sharing software -- because of potential network slowdowns.
"We do not ban the particular use of a software product by name or by content," Christenberry said. "Because we're a state school, it raises issues of state action and free speech. We feel we'll always be safe when we're talking about the routine business function of the network."
Napster Chief Executive Officer Hank Barry released a brief comment on the Gartner study late Wednesday afternoon.
"We are pleased that two-thirds of the schools polled in the survey will allow their students to participate in the Napster community," Barry said. "On the bandwidth front, Napster is working in a variety of ways to manage bandwidth issues at campuses. Our Bandwidth Management Resource Guide, which has been in place since June, is designed to help guide IT professionals to product-based solutions for various network architectures," he concluded.