Free music service ended, no plans for replacement yet

| Staff Reporter

Ruckus, the legal downloading service available free to college students, shut down without warning last week, leaving the University to find a new legal source of music downloads for students.

The music service folded on Friday, Feb. 6, fewer than two years after Washington University signed a contract with it in the fall 2006 semester. Previously downloaded files are no longer accessible, and any attempts to reach the Ruckus Web site yield the message: “Unfortunately the Ruckus service will no longer be provided.”

According to Campus Life Coordinator for Special Projects Mary Zabriskie, contract-holding schools were not notified until the following Monday. Despite the short notice, administrators and Student Union (SU) will begin to look for another service, starting with a meeting Friday to discuss alternatives.

SU Vice President of Administration Jeff Nelson said that all options are on the table, and student input will be considered in making a new choice.

“What’s important is to look at the convenience of the service, but also the legality of the service, and what type of contract the University as a whole would have to get into” Nelson said. “Part of what we’re going to have to do is look into things, have some students test them out and maybe have a focus group.”

Ruckus’s biggest advantage—its affordability—may have been the cause for its collapse.

“At the time [it was first offered], Ruckus was one of the few services that would allow free downloads of music,” Nelson said. “There wasn’t a huge cost that the University would have to take.”

The company relied on advertising revenues, but generated insufficient profit to weather the present recession.

Ruckus’ demise was met with mixed feelings from the student body. While there have been more than 6,700 subscribers and 4 million downloads on campus since the fall 2006 semester, students have also complained about the service’s drawbacks.

Those who owned Macs were unable to use Ruckus. Additionally, due to digital rights management (DRM) encoding, downloaded files could not be played in any other media player or device.

Many students said that they illegally stripped the DRM from the files in order to use the music in their preferred music player, thereby defeating the service’s purpose of providing legal downloads. One student said that he stopped using Ruckus altogether when a Windows update prevented him from removing the DRM using the popular utility fairuse4WM.

“I didn’t want to use Ruckus because I couldn’t actually have the files,” said the student, who preferred not to give his name because the act was illegal.

Nelson said that despite the potential for misuse of this or any download system, the University will provide students with the opportunity to access music legally.

“With any technology, there are people that are going to learn how to circumvent that technology,” Nelson said. “I think the University’s priority is to give students a legal way to download music that’s free and convenient.”

Students noted that the Ruckus library, while extensive, was often inconsistent in the downloads it offered.

“Their library was so weird,” junior David Rheinstrom said. “They’d have like the entire discography of Elvis Costello’s nephew, but they wouldn’t have Elvis Costello himself.”

While some students had ideas for alternatives, no perfect solutions have come to the fore. Junior David Brunell-Brutman suggested a streaming service, although similar programs are already available for free. Brunell-Brutman also noted that the University could pay for a limited number of downloads per student.

The first priority, according to junior Ben Madej, should be affordability.

“Don’t waste our tuition,” Madej said.

Students who wish to participate in the decision process may apply for the new Student Technology Advisory Committee in about two weeks. The group will also discuss improving campus e-mail—potentially by outsourcing to Gmail—and creating a student portal. The committee will include a formal process for input from nonmembers.

Students may also contact Student Union at [email protected].

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