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Following receipt of a letter from attorneys representing rapper Dr. Dre and heavy metal band Metallica, the University is considering whether to block access to the popular Napster music-sharing service. At this time, however, doing so would be a mistake. Napster, for the few of you who don't know, allows its 23 million users to swap music files over the Internet. Popular on college campuses across the country, it is also the defendant in a lawsuit filed by the Recording Industry Association of America alleging that its use violates U.S. copyright laws. Of course, Penn is obligated not to facilitate illegal activity over its computer system. And many times the University has gone beyond the letter of the law to take action it deems consistent with the institution's larger academic mission. But neither criterion satisfied by a decision to restrict Napster access, a step taken by several other schools to hear from the artists' attorneys. Whether Napster is, in fact, illegal is still a matter before the courts. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco is hearing Napster's appeal of a lower court defeat in a case that could influence Internet law for years to come. Meanwhile, the issue of whether the trading of copyrighted music files is moral is also very much ambiguous. For every Dre or Metallica calling upon universities to ban the service on moral grounds there is a Chuck D or Limp Bizkit that has come to embrace the revolutionary medium in the name of their fans. And there are countless up-and-coming acts without record contracts who may find the exposure they need through a service like Napster. Perhaps the worst thing Penn could do would be to comply with the letter's demands in order to escape the implicit threat of a lawsuit. Other schools to receive the letter -- including Yale University and the University of Southern California -- have been sued for permitting Napster access on campus, and the possibility is certainly on the minds of administrators. But such a threat should never be the deciding factor behind a policy that will have implications for years to come.

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