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Ill Communication

Gfc_kitty_backpack_sm I used to think the labels were losing the battle against campus piracy because they weren’t doing enough to put legitimate services into colleges and universities. But this story in the Wall Street Journal suggests that the situation is a bit more, umm, complicated. Even though they’re virtually free, the services aren’t attracting many student subscribers. And the students who do sign up keep their wallets in their jeans, rarely buying any permanent (99-cent) downloads.

Critics of Napster, Rhapsody and other subscription services say they’re not surprised – even an 18-year-old can tell a bad deal when he/she sees one. In this view, these services are a waste of money because all the tracks you’ve downloaded evaporate as soon as you stop paying a monthly fee. In addition, any permanent tracks you buy for 99 cents are polluted with a flavor of DRM that doesn’t work with iPods.

Gee, what a ripoff! It’s as if you paid $70 a month for TV, then lost all those great shows as soon as you cancelled your subscription! Oh, wait – nearly 80% of the people who watch TV do just that. And by saving those 99-cent downloads onto CDs (because everyone backs up their online purchases, right?), they can be converted easily to WAV, Apple Lossless or 320 Kbps MP3s with no discernable loss in fidelity.

Yes, the iPod compatibility problem is annoying. But here’s my indefensible position: on a campus where you have ubiquitous broadband and everyone totes a laptop, there’s no reason to download anything. Stream it all. (Microsoft may make this even easier by offering a portable player with WiFi. Granted, it's not likely to be an instant icon of cool.)

So why are the services lagging? My guess is that it’s a combination of factors. At the top of the list is the ubiquitous iPod. For students who have one – and who will admit to not having one? – the top priority is filling it. The legal services can’t help on that front. Instead, they’re a substitute, and folks with working iPods aren’t in the market for a substitute.

Second, the services aren’t nearly as deep as they should be. They’re good on new releases from the major labels and large independents, but sketchy elsewhere. (Kissing the Pink, anybody?) So students may sour on them as soon as they come up empty when searching for Led Zeppelin or Garth Brooks.

Finally, and most fundamentally, students may miss the point of these services because no one is doing even a marginally good job of explaining them. They’re not about acquiring tunes, they’re about being entertained by them. It’s just like cable TV, only cheaper and better. Besides, the $0 to $3 a month that students pay won’t buy them much from any legal outlet. Instead of thinking “Gee, I’ll be left with nothing when I graduate,” they should think, “Dang, I'll save a ton of money on music for four years.”

Of course, when students feel they’re entitled to music and shouldn’t have to pay for it, there’s no way to sell them a service that heaps restrictions onto files in exchange for cutting the price.

Maybe I’m atypical because I have a voracious appetite for music and don't think I should be it for free, but I like the subscription services. And with time and more product development (suggested feature: letting people play DJ remotely for their friends), maybe more of the tastemakers on campus will come to appreciate the services as I do. Of course, that won’t happen unless they also accept this basic premise of copyright law: labels and songwriters have a right to demand something in return for their work.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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