Downloading 101 has been an unofficial course in college dorm rooms for years, but this fall, the University of Washington hopes to persuade...

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Downloading 101 has been an unofficial course in college dorm rooms for years, but this fall, the University of Washington hopes to persuade students to get music legally through an alternative it is offering with the Napster music service.

The university is giving 3,000 students who live in its residence halls free access to Napster’s basic service, which offers songs for listening or downloading to a computer.

Napster has similar partnerships with 13 other universities, but the UW arrangement is the first time it is working with a hardware provider — in this case, Dell — which will install servers on campus that store the music.

Like other universities across the country, the UW feels the strain of student downloading on its computer network.

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The chunk of computer capacity the university allocates to its residence halls is “regularly saturated,” said Oren Sreeby, director of client services in the UW’s Computing and Communications division.

If that activity includes illegal downloading of copyright files, campuses might also face some degree of liability, experts say.

The UW isn’t saying how much it is paying for the service, citing confidentiality agreements with Napster and Dell, but plans to offer it to students free.

And though “free” is a favorite word of students, it’s unclear how much the service will be used.

Napster’s basic service allows students to download songs to their computer, but the songs work only while the arrangement with Napster is active.

Students won’t be able to move songs to a portable device unless they pay an additional monthly fee.

And forget about moving the songs to an iPod — a key accessory on campuses — because Napster’s service doesn’t work on it. It doesn’t work on Macintosh computers, either.

But Napster is legal, and peer-to-peer file-sharing services are facing harsh scrutiny after a U.S. Supreme Court decision last month.

“I actually think this is the right idea at the right time,” said Aram Sinnreich, co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Radar Research consulting firm.

File-sharing activity has been a concern for universities, he said, especially because of the schools’ role as Internet service providers.

“Digital music has begun to take off as a phenomenon that consumers understand and are willing to pay for,” he said.

“It actually makes a lot of sense from a financial perspective for universities to buy that kind of service in bulk and tack it on to their experiences.”

Sinnreich said he thinks young people aren’t against paying for music in principle; they just want to get the most out of their digital-music experience. If the Napster service is perceived as being more difficult to use than free file sharing, or if there are legal or technical hoops to jump through, its value will be diminished for students.

So far, Napster has been a modest success at its 13 university partners. By the end of March, those schools reported a total of 56,000 subscribers. Napster has 412,000 total subscribers.

It’s too early to know if students are continuing to use Napster after they graduate, said Napster spokeswoman Dana Harris.

The university partner program has been in place only since late 2003, and the first students to participate are just hitting the work force now, she said.

“It’s not something we’re really going to be able to measure for some time,” she said.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com