In piloting Cflix, Yale will be joining a select group of schools experimenting with providing access to Internet media, not preventing it, and this is a good thing. But while the approach of access over punishment is right, we believe the implementation and the provider are rushed and short-sighted.
Cflix will allow students to pay — either per download or through a reduced-price membership fee — for access to a few hundred thousand movie and music files, which will be updated weekly. The pricing has not yet been finalized, but movies, which will be available for download next month, may range from $1.95 to $3.95. A pricing range for music, which will be available in late February or March, has not yet been announced.
The program already shows some major weaknesses. Most notably, only students with Windows will be able to use Cflix, which requires Windows Media Player. ITS said it hopes to design custom software that would allow Mac users access to Cflix by next fall, but until that happens, users will be bound to Windows. We are uncomfortable with such a seeming endorsement of Microsoft by Yale — which has typically endorsed programs like Eudora rather than Microsoft competitors.
Even among the non-Mac users able to use Cflix, we can’t imagine many will. We simply don’t see much incentive. We already know that few choose to pay to download what they otherwise could get for free — this is why piracy is such a problem in the first place. At $3.95 per movie download, we might as well walk to Blockbuster and rent one. Other pay-per-download providers charge $0.99 per song download, and if Cflix pricing is similar, it could be cheaper to buy a CD. This hardly seems the approach to discourage file sharing. Apple iTunes, the industry leader, operates at a loss, and there’s no reason to expect Cflix, a much smaller provider, will do any better.
Peer schools have taken other approaches. Penn State has paid to allow its students access to Napster. Students pay an annual technology fee of $160, part of which goes toward the school’s arrangement with the online file-sharing company. Songs can be downloaded — for listening only — on up to three computers per user, and can be burned onto CDs for $0.99 per song. Of course, this means all students have to share the cost of the service, whether or not they intend to use it.
But the point is, there are other options. We understand the University’s desire to avoid responsibility for illegal student downloads, and appreciate its attempts to do so by providing options instead of eliminating them. But Yale should wait until there is a better product on the market. We’ll be interested to see what the University’s conclusion is at the end of the pilot, but we recommend waiting for better technology before committing. We’d like Yale to see how the industry matures, rather than signing a premature contract with a fledgling operation.