Geoff Tso says he has never bought a CD in his 20 years on this planet, but he loves music. He has more than 1,000 MP3 song files on his three computer hard drives. And he adds to his collection, downloaded off the Internet, every day at school. ''I like songs, not albums,'' says the third-year electrical engineering major at the University of California, Berkeley. ''Too much filler on CDs.'' So he, like thousands of other students on campuses nationwide, takes just what he wants, via online services such as Napster.

College students are among the most fervent of music fans--and by far the most active users of the music-swapping service. Students regularly are given super-high-speed connections from their dorms, which makes downloading multimedia material faster and simpler than in most other places. They have unlimited access to, and are expected to know how to use, the technology necessary for volume file sharing.

That puts Tso and fellow students at the crux of the recording industry's problem. If most college kids are so accustomed to free music that they balk at becoming paying customers-- indeed, that they don't see the value of paying an artist for his or her good work--then closing down Napster becomes only a small part of the battle. A judge ordered Napster to shut down this summer over copyright concerns, but that action was stayed by an appeals court, which hears opening arguments on Napster's fate Monday.

Tso says he's closely watching the actions of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. ''Colleges are the demographic sweet spot,'' says analyst Phil Leigh of the Raymond James investment banker firm. ''They have broadband access, and it's really easy for word-of-mouth to spread. The students tend to have time on their hands to fiddle with these things and the resources available. It's all the sufficient and necessary conditions for guerrilla warfare. ''I think the record labels appear likely to win their battles in court. If that happens, the conflict will move to the campuses, and the students will be at the vanguard of the partisan rangers.''

The lesson hasn't been lost on the industry. This month officials at Oklahoma State University confiscated a student's PC after the recording industry complained that he was trafficking in copyrighted songs. And the attorney for artists Dr. Dre and Metallica in their lawsuits against Napster has written stern letters to 20 universities, asking them to block students' use of Napster.

But most of this battle is going over the heads of the students. If Napster is shuttered by the courts, they say, it won't make much difference to them because many similar sites have sprung up that allow trading of songs in the MP3 digital format. ''I support Napster because I support MP3s,'' Tso says. ''But if they do shut it down, it won't affect MP3s that much. They are out there, and they're not going away.''

Some schools have banned Napster, either because of copyright concerns or because the volume of downloads clogged campus networks. But at those campuses, including the University of Southern California and Yale and Indiana universities, students find ways around the blockade. Grady Ritua, a senior at USC, has 300 songs on his hard drive and downloads often despite the ban. He and his 23 fraternity brothers split the bill for a high-speed DSL connection to dodge the rules. Interviewed on campus at lunchtime, Ritua and his friends ticked off a number of ways around the ban. A program called Napigator reroutes the Napster service. Another student uses the free service NetZero, typing in her requests in the morning and letting the songs flow in while she's in class.

Record companies call it stealing when computer users download copyrighted material for free. Ritua isn't bothered by that argument. He blames the record labels for jacking up CD prices over the years and says most of the money doesn't go to the artist, anyway. As proof the system is flawed, he cites countless episodes of VH1's Behind the Music in which artists talk of hitting it big, then discovering they're broke. ''Now the record companies are going to have to work harder,'' he says. ''It's not like they're hurting for money.''

In Northern California, Azul Couzens, 20, a third-year philosophy major at UC Berkeley, is starting school with a new PC with a 30-gigabyte hard drive--the extra space not for homework, but specifically for music files. He emphatically believes that copyrights aren't being violated, that trading songs online is no different from making a tape for a friend. The computer industry calls it ''peer to peer'' sharing of files; but unlike other forms of one-to-one sharing, such as swapping tapes or CDs, the vast majority of online swappers have never met. ''When you're on Napster, you are my buddy,'' Couzens reasons. ''There is a tacit agreement that I make my songs available, and so do you. We share our music. That falls under the umbrella of friendship.''

To Couzens, art is a commodity that ''should be available to the masses. . . . That's how I view Napster. It has made art available to all.''

While sharing may be flagrant, the record industry is having a hard time proving financial injury. Sales of recorded music hit a record $40 billion worldwide in 1999, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. And the pace continues, despite the download boom, with music sales up 3 percent in the first half of the year, mostly because of greater sales in chain stores such as Wal-Mart.

But market trackers at Forrester Research see bad signs down the road, predicting that the industry will lose more than $3 billion in the next five years to piracy. Logic would say that with so many students downloading music at UC Berkeley, the area's record stores would be hurting.

But nearby Telegraph Avenue is home to three larger-than-average music stores--Tower Records, Rasputin's and Amoeba Music--and they appear to be thriving. ''Berkeley is a record mecca, always has been, since the 1960s,'' says Jim Sugarman, general manager of the Tower store. ''Music is a big part of the culture here.'' While sales for singles are down, CD album sales in the store are even with last year. ''New superstar releases still sell in large quantities,'' he says. ''It's the artist who doesn't get as much hype that feels it.'' He says 75% of his customer base consists of students, ''and the reason we're all still here, aside from the depth of selection, is being able to see and feel the music. You're part of a music community here.''

Shopper Dan Paletz stopped by Tower last week for the new album by Wheatus. ''I downloaded one of their songs on Napster yesterday and really liked it, so I bought the CD,'' says the 22-year-old Berkeley political science major. ''Napster is a way to preview music. All my friends use it in the same way. I've downloaded the entire new Green Day album, and it won't be out for a month. But when it is, I'll be buying it.''

Not all students agree. USC student Shireen Kiang, 21, lives with a roommate who has 1,200 songs on her computer. And neither of them ever buys a CD because the prices have gotten so high. ''A CD is like three meals to a college kid,'' she says. ''A lot of times you'll only want one song.'' What if the courts permanently close Napster? Many observers believe that will happen, given the recent judicial track record of protecting copyright holders. ''I'll still have all those songs on my computer, and they're not going away,'' Couzens says. ''Shutting them down won't accomplish anything.'' Ritua says: ''I'll just look for another place to download MP3s. There are so many sites now. It's like (the record industry is) fighting a pointless battle.''

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