Web Exclusives:On the Campus...

October 10, 2003:
Princeton traditions
Being a frosh and downloading music

by Andrew Romano

Milling around Mathey College courtyard on the Wednesday afternoon before classes began, kicking leaves and attempting to conceal my awkwardness, I felt like a freshman again. And I didn’t like it.

I was waiting for one of the brand-new Freshman Orientation Week Historical Campus Tour to begin. Cosponsored by Orange Key and the Princetoniana Committee, the tours were set to start their initial run at 4:30 p.m. from each residential college. Guides decked out in de rigueur orange and black would tow packs of eager freshmen around their respective dorm clusters, reciting choice clips of campus history and myth; all groups would converge on the Blair Arch Steps 45 minutes later for a few jovial rounds of “Old Nassau,” “Going Back,” and the ever-rousing locomotive.

“We’re really excited to have this opportunity to share some Princeton traditions with what will be the newest alumni class,” said event organizer and recent graduate Liz Greenberg ’03 while waiting for that class, 2007, to arrive.

But at 4:30, the Mathey guides weren’t guiding anyone – they were shouting things like “Rachel, will you pretend to be a frosh?” to a passing sophomore and “Come over here, kids – this is a mandatory meeting!” to nearby freshmen. Only 10 first-year students had shown up.

“I think we need to work on promotion next year,” said Orange Key chairwoman Katherine Linder ’04.

Guides scrounged up 15 shrugging freshmen from neighboring Hamilton and Joline Halls and finally launched the tour at 4:45. We trotted by Nassau Hall. Our eyes strained to see the scar where Washington’s cannonball struck the southern wall of the structure’s west wing back in 1777. We heard the tale of the cannons. We learned the legend of the clapper-nabbers.

And at 5:20, we climbed the Blair steps to sing the school songs. 100 freshmen in all had hitched on to the various tours snaking their way around campus, and now I was standing shoulder to shoulder with two of them, pretending to learn the seventh verse of “Old Nassau” for the first time. Despite their hesitating, tuneless delivery, the anthem sounded good.

I grabbed one of them as the mass began descending the steps and trudging back to Forbes, Butler, Wilson, Mathey, and Rockefeller. His name was Willie Poor, Class of 2007. As I asked him why he took the tour, three fresh-women chirped his name and told him to hurry up.

“I just thought it would be a good way to learn the nuances of Princeton,” he said and scurried off.

I watched Willie Poor walk off with his women. I started whistling “Old Nassau.” I wished I were a freshman again.

Musical traditions may have enlivened campus during Freshmen Week, but lately music has played a rather untraditional role at Princeton: making criminals of students.

I am one of these criminals. I’ve been stealing intellectual property – i.e. downloading and sharing MP3 files online – for years now. No one’s busted me yet, but that doesn’t mean I feel safe.

On Monday, September 8, the Recording Industry Association of America – the largest trade group in the music business – filed lawsuits against 261 individual file-sharers. Like me – and many other Princeton undergrads who use peer-to-peer file-sharing programs like Kazaa or Morpheus. Each defendant had more than 1,000 copyrighted MP3 files available for free download on his or her PC, and now each faces crushing civil penalties or out-of-court settlements – settlements that could cost the defendants tens of thousands of dollars apiece.

On September 7, a few hours before the RIAA issued this flurry of suits, computer science professor Brian Kernighan had asked the entire Class of 2007 (plus this ’04er) to ponder the possibility of paying a price for our crimes. At 7:30 p.m. that Sunday evening, 1,000 first-year students trooped into Richardson for the annual Freshman Assembly, expecting what the orientation literature called an “introduction to the intellectual life of our community.” Kernighan’s speech on the advantages and disadvantages of the digital revolution was just that sort of introduction – as learned and prickly as the most memorable school-year lectures. But to the MP3-swappers in attendance, it sounded like a warning as well.

“[The RIAA] has… filed more than a thousand subpoenas to force Internet Service Providers (including universities) to reveal the identities of people sharing music,” said Kernighan. “[It] is also aggressively seeking stronger legal tools to discourage sharing. In effect, we are in an arms race, and the weapons on each side are becoming more destructive.”

The MP3 arms race may have escalated the next morning, but it began last April with the RIAA’s assault on fellow Tiger Dan Peng ’05. The two freshmen guys slouching in the seats next to me could rattle off the plot points of Peng’s story – 17-year old whiz kid sophomore runs popular campus-wide search engine to help network users pinpoint and download media files; industry finds out; sues for billions of dollars in damages – but the prospect of getting busted like Peng, they told me, didn’t keep anyone away from Kazaa.

After the talk, members of the Class of 2007 split up into residential advising groups and trickled back to their dorms. Eager for feedback, I followed one set of frosh into the common room of an eight-person suite in 1937 Hall. The precept-style get-together started slowly, but soon gathered steam. The kids argued about everything – whether the term “popular music” would cease to mean anything once the public stops buying CD’s, whether a government-run music distribution system would be considered communist. Everything, that is, except whether or not to quit swapping music files online. Everyone agreed not to.

By the next morning, however, the industry was hunting down ordinary (if avid) peer-to-peer file-sharers (and not computer programmers like Peng). Princeton students – 18-22-year old music fans with the time and technology needed to amass thousand-song MP3 libraries – were suddenly prime targets. Their hands must be trembling on their mice, I thought. Mine was.

So all day I bugged my friends, neighbors, fellow eating club members – but no one was quitting. I waited 48 hours for tales of mass MP3 deletion to start pouring in. No luck. Around dinnertime on September 10 I wrote an email to Rita Saltz, the policy and security advisor in Princeton’s Office of Information Technology. Realizing that students would never voluntarily forswear programs like Kazaa, I asked her: “Why hasn't the university put a stop to what's really an illegal practice?”

“Are you suggesting that Princeton try to ban all file-sharing software and methodologies?” she fired back, comparing the MP3-swapping situation on campus to underage drinking. “Or that we engage an army of people to monitor and censor all electronic activity? That doesn’t seem to be the correct solution for what, after all, is a matter of education and personal ethics.”

She was right. I downloaded 14 more MP3’s that evening.

Andrew Romano '04 is from Medford, New Jersey, and is majoring in English. You can reach him at aromano@Princeton.EDU