To Share or Not to Share

To Share or Not to Share

File sharing has changed the way students get music and raised a question: whose music is it, anyways?

By Gerry Boyle '78

If this technological revolution found you napping, don't feel bad. Even the computer experts were caught off guard when students (at Colby and elsewhere) joined the file-sharing ranks in such numbers that Internet transmission lines were overwhelmed.

For those who are interested, a brief recap:

It was four years ago, and two T1 Internet lines were in use at Colby: one for administrative and academics needs, one for the residence halls. The line for administrators and faculty was adequate, but technology people at Colby soon noticed that the line connecting residence halls to the outside world was almost always overloaded. "It was saturated," said Ray Phillips, director of information technology services. "There was so much Napster going on that nobody could do anything else."

Colby policy prohibits the College from monitoring what individuals look at on the Internet or the content of files they share. But the College can monitor general Internet traffic patterns. When Napster surfaced, Phillips's colleagues looked at the types of Internet connections being made by students and figured out how the network was being used. While they couldn't tell which Internet ports were responsible for the most traffic, the technical people did get a pretty good idea of what was going on, "that it was just a constant stream of stuff being downloaded," Phillips said.

Talking to students confirmed the diagnosis: everybody was doing it. As Orr recalled, "Even though Napster was huge, the network [at Colby] was still kind of slow so I would just pick twelve songs and then I would leave my room and go about my day. I would come back and they'd all be downloaded."

Life was good. But Phillips began warning students that what they were doing had some serious drawbacks. "It used up a limited resource so that legitimate academic applications of the network were seriously degraded," he said. "You couldn't do research. You couldn't use the Web. It was a playground. . . . It's also engaging in copyright infringement."

Every semester, Phillips sent out warnings that downloading music from the Internet could be illegal. Students could be prosecuted and fined, even jailed. "The problem with that warning was that, in fact, nobody was actually being prosecuted," he said.

When the warnings went out, file sharing dropped slightly, then quickly bounced back up. When students found it hard to resist Napster's musical candy store, the College stepped in. Colby created prioritized queues in the residence-hall connections to the Internet. Web browsing was in the top queue, while file sharing was at the bottom. When students needed bandwidth to search the Internet, file sharing was bumped. "It achieved exactly what I had hoped," Phillips said. "The Napster users were complaining and the Web browsers were not."

And then the Napster users got more bad news. The file-sharing service was taken to court and lost. End of story? Hardly.