US universities are signing deals with legal music download sites in an attempt to stop students taking music unlawfully.

At least 20 universities have signed deals with such services in the last year said the Recorrding Industry Association of America (RIAA) yesterday.

A year ago, no such agreements existed, said Cary Sherman, president of the RIAA: "Since the beginning of last year, we have seen extraordinary progress on all counts," Sherman said. "This is a trend that will only continue to proliferate, and we could not be more pleased."

Although the RIAA didn't provide concrete numbers on the popularity of these for-pay services on college campuses, Penn State (which has a deal with Napster) is already getting requests for expanded services, said Graham Spanier, university president. Penn State's basic service, which is paid for as part of student IT fees, offers unlimited streaming audio. Students can store songs on their computer hard drives for $0.99 a song, and the university plans to soon offer students the option of storing songs on portable devices for a monthly fee, Spanier said.

Feel the quality

The advantage for students is that, unlike some P-to-P services, these university-run download services don't include spyware or adware, can have higher quality files and lack the risk of being sued by the RIAA, Sherman said. In March and April, the RIAA filed lawsuits against 158 file-traders using university networks to access P-to-P services.

"Once students are introduced to the qualitative difference, we think they will become addicted to the habit and become long-term music purchasers," Sherman said. "That's the good news for us."

Artists deserve their royalties (eventually)

The fee-based services also teach students that artists deserve to be paid, Sherman said. "There is a legion of college music fans who are currently getting their music illegally and for free, and they're getting the impression that music has no value," Sherman said. "These fans are the future of this industry, though, and we need to work to connect them to the legitimate marketplace."

The move to fee-based music download services has also produced advantages for universities, said Spanier, co-chairman with Sherman of the joint committee. In Penn State's deal with Napster, the music files reside on Penn State's network, cutting down on the amount of outside bandwidth needed to download music.

"Our (system) is clean, it's fast, it's high quality, it's risk free and it's legal," Spanier said.

The joint committee will give its report on university activity to the US Congress, which has held several hearings on music downloading in the past two years.