June 24, 2024

University-Purchased Music Services a Bust

When universities buy music service subscriptions for their students, few students use them, according to Nick Timiraos’s story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Students tend to download music illegally, or buy it from iTunes instead.

In explaining the popularity of Napster and other file-sharing systems, commentators have often overemphasized the price factor and underestimated convenience. Here we see students given the option of a free subscription service, and passing it up to use another free (though illegal) system, or a for-pay system that is more convenient than the free one. (These systems are free to the students, in the sense that using them costs no more than not using them.)

This error was particularly common when the original Napster was new. Before Napster, many people knew how to distribute music conveniently online, but licensing and payment issues were holding up the development of useful online music services. Napster cut the Gordian knot by building the distribution infrastructure and skipping the licensing and payment part. For Napster users, payment was not optional – there was no way to pay, even if the user wanted to. Napster users were choosing convenience, as much as they were choosing not to pay.

Thanks to the record companies’ insistence on intrusive DRM, most of today’s authorized online music services suffer from incompatibility and user frustration. iTunes offers the least intrusive DRM, and unsurprisingly it is by far the most successful online music store. Music fans want music they can actually listen to.

(link via Doug Tygar)


  1. “Captcha? Isn’t that one of those little word pictures that makes posting difficult for the visually impaired?”

    That’s an implementation issue that could be resolved, not a fundamental flaw with the whole concept. A word problem in plain English the answering of which requires solving the NLP would work as well.

    And it’s held up two posts in as many days, so it’s either had its zealousness parameter increased, or it’s new, or it’s on the blink somehow. The second post didn’t even contain any links, let alone possess a large link-text to regular-text ratio.

  2. //As regards the quality argument, I would have thought that the quality of a copy made in this way would be no different than one made by capturing the pc-to-monitor stream, and about which they went to all the HDCP lengths to try and prevent.//

    If one constructs a lightproof box with a high-resolution monitor and a multi-megapixel camera, it should be possible with proper calibration to get pixel-perfect screen grabs of anything the monitor can show. The cost of doing this would be only a minor annoyance for major pirates, and no amount of HDCP, AACS, etc. will prevent it.

  3. Brandon Shatley says

    Captcha? Isn’t that one of those little word pictures that makes posting difficult for the visually impaired?

    Besides, I get the impression that this is the first time Neo’s posts have been delayed for moderation despite the fact he said he’s been posting here for years. Sounds like a pretty good spam filter to me. One delayed post in several years is much better than making a site inaccessible to the disabled.

  4. What about a captcha, with a positive-for-being-human result saved to a cookie? The cookie could use a 256-bit-cipher digital signature keyed to your IP address to prevent forgery. The captcha appears if there’s no cookie, or the cookie is invalid (e.g. your dynamic IP got changed, or you did try to forge a cookie) and produces a new, valid cookie. Since a cookie is already used to remember name and email, this wouldn’t even mean adding that much.

    As for spam detection, a large url-to-plain-text ratio tends to be a feature of spam. Two links in several paragraphs is fairly typical of non-spammy writing. Ten links with more than half the characters in the message being part of one link or another is fairly typical of spammy writing. Also, most blog spams I see are short, often just a link. The long ones tend to be about ten thousand copies of the same link, or hundreds of separate links, with almost no non-link text.

    But, whatever.

    The major interesting post was the copyright-alternative one that didn’t get treated with suspicion, anyway.

  5. Neo,

    Posts are set aside for moderation automatically, based on criteria relating to the post content. It looks like your post was marked for moderation because it was long, it contained more than one hyperlink, and (I’m guessing here) it happened to contain some words that are common in blog comment spam. If it’s any consolation, most of the messages set aside in this way turn out to be spam.

    I don’t think this mechanism has a per-user whitelist. If it’s any consolation, you would be on the whitelist if there were one.

    Measures to fight comment spam are unfortunately necessary. The site has gotten about 110,000 comment spams so far this calendar year. The vast majority of them were intercepted by our antispam technologies. We’ve tried various antispam tactics over the years and our current setup seems to offer the best tradeoffs. But it’s not perfect.

  6. What’s this “awaiting moderation” crap? I made two postings and one is published right away while the other is “awaiting moderation”. Why is one of them being treated differently? And why, after all these years, am I not on some sort of “white list”?

  7. To John, re: spyware — see http://www.thiefware.com/screen.shots/ for some shots of eZula spyware and related nasties infecting Internet Exploder. What I saw was very similar and is listed just about everywhere as a known spyware symptom: when you visit a page in an infected browser, certain keywords the spyware vendor’s clients have paid for, if they occur in the text, are changed into links, which have a different underline style (often gold or green instead of blue) and mouseover behavior than normal links, and link to advertisers’ sites.

    This is annoying and an eyesore, but it can be obstructive (if a keyword occurs in a pre-existing link, the entire link may no longer work or go to the advertiser’s site instead) and the software responsible usually doesn’t restrict itself to just the one behavior; replacing a site’s ad banners, if it has any, with the spyware’s clients’ banner ads is commonplace, as is tracking user behavior and stealing affiliate referral fees from amazon.com and the like; sites tend to lose the revenue your eyeballs or purchases would generate if you visit them while infected, which means this type of spyware jeopardizes free ad-supported sites everywhere on the Web. See http://www.mordesigns.com/legal/warning.htm for more on this — it also describes the same symptoms again.

    From that site:

    “Furthermore, unreviewed links may be introduced into shopping cart links, product recommendations, editorials, online legal documents and posts to online forums, adding confusion and potentially misleading you, the user.”
    Since the infection, I’ve seen a lot of online forum pages corrupted by the one I got infected with (IntelliTXT, from the look of things, rather than TopText); this one seems to detect if you visit a forum with your infected browser and is especially likely to add phony links in that instance for some reason.

    “But perhaps the most frightening concern TopText and similar applications raise is that they may spell an end to the free Web. A huge percentage of the Web’s most popular sites owe their very existence to advertising dollars. TopText steals those dollars away from them without any compensation.” This warns of the big danger of sufficiently-widespread infestation, and also notes that TopText isn’t the only beast of this type out there. (The site goes on to explicitly mention Surf+ as being worse than TopText. It doesn’t mention IntelliTXT, which may be relatively new, but seems to be related to eZula TopText.)

  8. Jeff (and others) have me thinking.

    I think it is time for copyright, as we have known it, to die.

    I think open source, creative commons, and the like have shown that it is not necessary for “progress of science and the useful arts” to take place, and without the progress clause to uphold it, it instantly becomes dubious on first amendment grounds.

    But moreover, what started as a kind of gentleman’s agreement between people and artists has turned into a bitter struggle with strong-arm tactics between people and big business, with artists caught in the middle.

    I envision, 30 years or so from now, a world where downloading and sharing and reuse are free (and legal); but where nicely-packaged copies are sold, too, that give money back to the artists. People will buy these, for artists they especially like and wish to support, and to display proudly to others as evidence of their generosity. They would sell quite well, I suspect. Artists who sold such copies of derivative works they’d made of other art would also tend to pass on some of the money to the originator whose work they reinterpreted/modified, or risk developing a bad reputation.

    The system above is, of course, a kind of honor-system, which doesn’t even try to require payment for every copy, and certainly not really enforceable, not by law anyway. But then, current copyright is increasingly unenforceable, as evidenced by rampant p2p piracy. The system proposed has the advantages that it cuts out greedy middlemen and makes it about the artists and art again; it works naturally with the human sense of honor, kind of like tipping in restaurants — which incidentally is unenforced other than informally, but works well; and it gets rid of a lot of lawyers, civil and criminal cases before the courts, DRM, the DMCA, and a whole lot of other generally messy stuff.

    The one thing that might deserve legal consideration is to make mass-production-and-sale of art without royalties to its authors illegal, perhaps requiring that at least 50% of revenues after expenses go to the artist(s). (Mass-production-and-giving-away and individual sale are excluded from this.)

    As for phasing out the old system, set all copyrights (and maybe all patents), pre-existing or created in the future, to expire on a certain date. This gives businesses time to reorganize their business models and position themselves for the transition to a world in which the art has been freed, but the artists still get tipped generously — maybe more generously than they do now by signing deals with major labels, and especially for niche-market “long tail” works.

  9. Random personal anecdote / response to Brian Srivastava’s post:

    I recently got a $20 gift certificate to iTunes, so now I’ve got “money in the bank”, as it were. For my most recent CD shopping spree, I compared what I could get from iTunes versus purchasing generic CDs. In many cases, the real CD was only $1 or $2 more than purchasing the album from iTunes. Furthermore, some popular CDs now are hybrid CD / DVD things, giving you much more value for your money than iTunes.

    The place where iTunes offers value (and the place where I’m using my store credit there) is buying singles from albums containing otherwise forgettable material. Also, iTunes has some out of print material that would cost much more money to track down on CD.

    (For what it’s worth, I’d rather spend the extra money on a real CD, just so I can rip it into Apple Lossless, which plays properly on my Slim Devices SqueezeBox and my home computer, as well as being easily transcoded to MP3 for my RioCar car stereo. “Protected” iTunes files don’t play on all my devices, so they have much less value to me.)

  10. cm,

    To me “ligitimacy” means more than simply immunity from lawsuits, I think it does entail a degree of supporting the artist and distributor. So I don’t see it as “protection money.”

    You are, of course, right about the steal vs. violate copyright on this particular issue. The point I was trying to make is that the social contract that makes a person prefer honesty and fair dealings breaks down rather quickily when they believe that the other party is taking advantage of them.

    For example, imposing restrictive DRM for the sole purpose of developing a captive market and to sell the same song to the same individual as a ringtone, music file, music video, etc…

  11. Brandon Shatley says

    If the university Napster subscriptions were really free of charge, then I wouldn’t have a problem with them. The fact is though that my “technology fee” was increased to pay for the Napster service. So I am actually being forced to pay for DRM-laden music as a consequence of being a student, as part of a fee that was intended to pay for computer labs and other educational tools. Top that off with the fact that the Napster client isn’t available for Gnu/Linux, and I’m not just being billed for content that I do not want, but content that I cannot use. And this money is being taken by an industry that calls me a theif!

  12. To Neo: I don’t think that that site is infected with spyware. I have looked at it in both IE and FF and there is no attempt to install anything on my pc. Are you sure that you are not refering to advertising, where words in the text have sponsored advertising, and where scripted panels describing the link appear when you hover the cursor over the word?

  13. John wrote:


    Ugh, thanks. Now I’m infected — even though I was using firefox. Strange looking links that all lead to irrelevant commercial sites while browsing — a well-known symptom of spyware infection. Now to reboot in safe mode and run spybot S&D. I wonder if this day can get any worse…

  14. Brian Srivastava says

    Somewhere along the line it would be interesting to see how much money is spent on CD’s which are immediately converted to some audio format (say .mp3 etc…) and then never used again, and then compare that to how well online music services do.

    Perhaps that is the only reason there is any meaninful CD market left for young people, of all the options available, while you pay more for it, you have fairly efficient archives, and (with some notable exceptions) limited DRM so you can use them wherever you want.

    If I buy all my music from one online service, and then 1 change my e-mail address or 2 have my hard drive fail can I get it all back (without paying again)? The answer of course depends on the service, but to me those are big factors in choosing which service, if any, to use.

    That and the itunes interface really is exceptional, it ties in nicely with your portable device, your whole music collection is accessable, you can search a substantial library of tracks, without changing programs etc…

  15. RalphW: Under the theory that you paid for the music (or more precisely for the license to listen to it an unlimited number of times during an unlimited period), and the tape is only a specific medium to convey what you paid to you, I don’t see why digitizing your tape (i.e. changing/extending the medium) is not straightforward fair use, and why you should have to “legitimize” this by purchasing another digital incarnation. One can quibble you only have license to listen directly from the tape, but that’s a rather weak point.

  16. I’d like to see a study of how people might consider ‘buying’ music that is DRM-encumbered, just to legitimize their previous (or future MP3 downloads.) Once I have a song in MP3 format, it no longer matters if I have an iPod or iTunes-friendly to play it on.

    How far will people extend this ‘right’ to music in a certain format? Does it apply to music I purchased on 8-track in the 1970s?

    How will all the Linux users act?

  17. If you buy something it comes with certain warranties and indemnifications (fitness for use). Buying music from a for-pay site gives me near certainty that the track is of a decent quality (technically: no skipping tracks) and matches its catalog index; downloading from a P2P network can give me static or crappy rips.
    The convenience of having a catalog is worth something to me too… Hunting torrents around the net is time-consuming and if I can find the song I want (in a usable format) in an easily searchable catalog, the convenience is worth some money.
    If Napster has an crappy (IE-only, flash and/or activeX required) interface, while iTunes has a much better user interface; that would explain too why many go to the seemingly more expensive shop. And, as others have noted, the products can not easily be compared: A free temporary license (as long as you’re on school) for a song that doesn’t play on an iPod, compared to an affordable “permanent” license for a song that plays both on your computer and your iPod.

  18. That’s really a great story and it’s really surprising for me. some people are in a habit to download things illegally that can create problems but still they would love to do it and will repeat it end number of times!

  19. According to statements made by the manufacturers, there is nothing in the AACS standards that are violated, and this is not an HDCP issue There is already talk of the possibility of revoking keys, but if they start revoking keys to cover up their own blunders, that will develop into a separate contoversy altogether, as that would involve revoking keys that have not been compromised. Also, where the equipment makers are not a fault, an issue might arise as to who pays for the cost of upgrades etc.

    And what if other holes like this appear?

    As regards the quality argument, I would have thought that the quality of a copy made in this way would be no different than one made by capturing the pc-to-monitor stream, and about which they went to all the HDCP lengths to try and prevent.

    But this is diverging from the thread. The point I was making is that with pre-emptive drm, you are trying to predict where the holes will appear, and this shows that you can never do that.

  20. John: I thought print-screen was not supposed to work for DVD playing software (precisely for this reason), but then I don’t know how it is implemented. Maybe it is hard to prevent. At any rate, the uncompressed video is not of the same quality as the compressed one (repeated compression/uncompression steps will ever so slightly degrade quality), but probably more than good enough for most practical purposes.

  21. I think it gets back to business models. Business models must be robust in the technologival environment in which they live. But we seem to have had changes in that environment which threaten those models, and the response is to try and control the technology.

    If (as it is) it is easy to copy and distribute music, then business models must change to fit in with it. An example of this is musicians who self-distribute their music as cheap unprotected CD’s and free unprotected mp3 downloads, relying for their income mainly on things there the user experience has to be paid for (such as merchandise and attending concerts etc.)

    The poblem for the labels is that viable business models in the new technological environment, see the labels redundant altogether.

    The problem with DRM is that it is becoming increasingly intrusive, without actually attaining its goal. There is also a growing problem of pre-emptive DRM which seeks to protect against future technical developments which might take place. And what usually happens is that someone finds a way of evading the protection that the designers never thought of.

    For example, I understand that no-one anticipated the copying of an HD movie by scripting the repetitive capturing of the screen using the “print screen function” and that computers that are fully AACS and HDCP comapliant have already been shipped with this security hole in them. See:


  22. I think discussing this on a pure “economic” model is wrong and introduces the distorted thinking that creative pursuits are the same as industrial processes.
    If I really like some song (or book or art) then I appreciate the person or group of people producing it… and that’s a small group of people (I don’t particularly care about their lawyers, marketing men etc). I want them to produce more, so I want to support them financially, otherwise they will not produce more. There’s some music I cherish and play frequently and other stuff I listen to once. Big corporations like Sony or the other giants don’t actually produce any music, they just get in the way. So what are they being paid for these days when they no longer have a monopoly on the means of distributing music? I think actually what we are paying for is their lawyers to find a means of keeping their broken business model going. Just take a look at the actual amount that goes back to the producers of the music!
    Buying used CDs (which I do) may give legal access to the content, but does not contribute to the musicians, so I don’t feel I’m supporting them.

  23. Jeff: “However, I think that you can also gather from the data that people would rather steal than be taken advantage of.”

    I think the proper description of this case, and illicit copying avoiding fees generally, is “take advantage of somebody/thing”, not “steal”. Theft implies taking an item from the owner/possessor. Copying does not.

  24. Jeff: “Fee for legitimacy” is essentially “protection money”. I’m not sure I would want to support that. Reasonable service and royalty fees is another thing.

  25. dr2chase says

    Emusic is legal, no DRM, cheaper than iTunes. I quite using iTunes when they broke JHymn, because the whole authorize-deauthorize and burn-then-rip to get it into MP3 format (for my car stereo) was just Too Much Trouble.

    However, eMusic is only cheaper than iTunes if you remember to buy your monthly allotment of downloads, so it has its own builtin hassles. I forgot to cancel after my trial two weeks, just for example, so I think I just got dinged for a month.

  26. The problem is, there is no (inexpensive, no restrictions) service to compare to (free, no restrictions). allofmp3 has no restrictions, but it also has massively lower prices than itunes. So you can’t tell if people choose allofmp3 because of less restrictions or because of the lower price than itunes. If allofmp3 raised its price to 99c each song, then a real comparison could be made. It wouldn’t because they’d lose lots of business, leading to the indicator that price is much more important than restrictions.

    The real problem is that this is a 3-way contest between illegal/free (Gnutella), illegal/cheap (allofmp3), and legal/moderate (itunes, napster, rhapsody). Perhaps a better comparison would be between the used CD market (moderate/no restrictions) and allofmp3 (cheap/no restrictions). I know that the record companies lost my business around 1999 to the amazon used CD market. I think it’s currently the best value for getting high quality, no restrictions music.

  27. In some cases, people will even choose to pay for what they can legitimately get free. One reason is that paying creates *perceived* legitimacy whether it create *real* legitimacy or not. People will value something more if they paid for it, and sometimes you can sell something to someone that they would refuse to accept as a gift.

    Managers will authorize the purchase of Red Hat Linux in a box when they wouldn’t authorize installation of “some weird piece of code you got off the Net for free”, and that’s true even though many of them will never use the tech support service that is the purported main benefit of buying the package. Really, a big part of what they want is to *have paid* for the package; that’s value in itself even if they don’t get anything else for the money.

    The “Website” link on this comment is another example – I wrote a book and licensed it under Creative Commons, and even though anyone who bought a copy of the electronic version would be free to legitimately give it away to the entire world, it has nonetheless continued to sell beyond the first copy. That’s partly because of the convenience factor (finding someone who already bought a copy, to give it to you, costs more than $3.50 worth of effort) but it’s also because many of my customers want to pay for it even if they don’t have to.

  28. I disagree that free, no restrictions will always beat out inexpensive with no restrictions since the free option is also illegal. Most people either want to be honest or are risk adverse. It follows that a reasonable fee could be charged for legitimacy.

    However, I think that you can also gather from the data that people would rather steal than be taken advantage of.

  29. This article does not give any new information. There are still too many variables tied up in all this. It would be good if someone did a controlled study of parameters:

    – length of expiration (or infinite)
    – pay for addl services (burn, more copies)
    – price, including one-time, monthly, or bulk (by MB like allofmp3)

    Ever since Napster, there has always been a spoiling factor in these real-world market studies. Free, no restrictions always beats out (1 cent, no restrictions) or (free, 1 small restriction) so there is no way to get any good comparison.

    It’s the same with piracy. Without an effective copy protection scheme, there’s no way to know how many people who pirated your software would have purchased it and how many were just trafficing in it for ego or software hoarding.

  30. Wes Felter says

    Were these services ever intended to be used by students? My impression was that they serve as “tokens of good will” (aka payoffs) to the recording industry, who drop lawsuits against universities and their students in exchange.

  31. Randy Picker says

    This is a Rashomon article. You saw free + no-DRM beats free + DRM (the Purdue story). I saw free + permanent beats free + temporary (the opening Cornell story). I suspect that both are true, as this matches our usual expectation that people prefer more to less. No one (at least not me) has ever contended that consumers actually prefer DRM restrictions; the question, as we have discussed before, is whether those restrictions are in the joint interest of producers and users/consumers.

    But here is the question: have you (or anyone else) done a study of the DRM practices of the major music services? Can we rank those (as you do implicitly with iTunes) based on their degree of restrictions or intrusiveness?