DAVIS, CALIF. — It's Friday afternoon and the freshmen of Tercero Hall at the University of California at Davis are doing what college students have done for generations.
Music fills the air, doors are open, and dorm mates drift from room to room making plans for the evening.
Yet for all its familiarity, a walk down Tercero's hallway is a journey into a new world.
This is the first generation of Americans raised on computers and the freewheeling ways of the Internet. And the Babel of music echoing down the concrete corridor is not from personal CDs but from digital downloads off the Web.
Using software from a company called Napster, these students have joined a mushrooming music collective that makes it easy and quick for members to copy music from each other, free of charge.
By doing so, however, these students are also players in a battle over copyright laws, which like many of the old rules governing commerce are being tested and rewritten by the digital age.
Students here were warned recently about possible copyright-law violations in using Napster. And the practice has become so popular across the country that scores of universities have taken steps to block or impede students' access to Napster, not so much for legal reasons but simply because its heavy use is bogging down their computer networks and disrupting normal academic use.
Napster, based in San Mateo, Calif., has been sued by the Recording Industry Association of America for "operating as a haven for music piracy." A court hearing is expected later this month.
But whatever the outcome of that suit, it's only a small sample of the monumental shifts - and threats - the entertainment field sees in the emerging digital world and its newest generation of customers.
There is undoubtedly a whiff of rebellion in students' rush to get free music from Napster. But students in Tercero Hall also express an underlying attitude that goes to the heart of this generation's different expectations as a result of growing up with the Internet.
Freshman Benjamin Santa Maria, who has downloaded about 1,000 songs from Napster over the past nine months, expresses it this way: "I just believe that the Internet is a free market, and this is a way to use the Internet."
He's not alone. There are well over 1 million songs freely available through Napster.
A technology known as MP3 has for several years allowed music to be compressed and transmitted over the Internet. But finding or sharing songs was difficult. Napster has solved much of that by stitching together a huge community of Internet music-seekers and providing a software that allows them to share their music.
For its part, Napster, founded last year by Northeastern University computer-science student Shawn Fanning, maintains that it is on the right side of the law because it doesn't store or copy any of the music itself.
The company's vice president of marketing, Elizabeth Brooks, says Napster's appeal goes beyond free music to the sense of community it has fostered. "I talk to our users and read their e-mail," she says. "What they like is the feeling of being connected to other people."
Here among the cluster of double-occupancy rooms in Tercero, Napster's index of music is checked by many students as often as the latest college basketball scores. The music available on Napster changes constantly, as new members join and make their collections available to other members.
At this stage, most any popular recording can be found. "Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, I find what I want," says frequent user Yuta Tanaka.
And while the Napster phenomenon has taken off, it is just one manifestation of how computers and the Internet have changed college dorm life.
Portable or desktop computers are omnipresent, and they have become not only an indispensable tool for study, but a main vehicle for entertainment.
In one room in Tercero, a foursome huddles around a laptop, each guiding sleek roadsters through a hotly contested road race. Most students' computers are loaded with digital games, often freely shared with friends.
Farther down the hall, a student is watching "The Matrix" on his computer screen, one of a dozen or so bootleg copies of recent movies students make available to each other via the university's network.
Copyright laws and the value of artists' work are clearly under challenge in the new digital world. Many in the entertainment field feel deeply threatened by the ability of the Internet to disseminate music, films, and games with increasing ease.
Analysts expect legal battles and shifting social norms in the coming years as the industry, customers, and technology search for a new set of commonly accepted, and enforceable, practices.
But whatever those norms turn out to be, college dorms like Tercero are already indicating that the old ones are rapidly becoming obsolete.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society