MIT's Music Swap Alternative

Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Keith Winstein demonstrates the music library software he helped create with fellow student Josh Mandel, during an interview Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2003, in Cambridge, Mass. The Winstein and Mandel software will allow MIT to legally offer from its 3,500 CD music library on-demand music over the college cable television system.
Keith Winstein and Josh Mandel may soon be the most popular guys on campus. They say they've discovered a way to give their fellow students at MIT and elsewhere dorm-room access to a huge music library without having to worry about getting slapped with a lawsuit from the recording industry.

On Monday, the pair debuted a system they've built that lets MIT students listen for free to 3,500 CDs over the school's cable television network.

"It's an improved music library in the sense that it doesn't close and you don't have to walk there to borrow the music," Winstein told CBS Radio News. "We certainly hope that it'll make students less likely to break the law to get music."

Winstein and Mandel say it's completely kosher under copyright law.

"They're taking advantage of the fact that they already have permission to broadcast these songs through the campus cable network," said CBS News Technical Analyst Larry Magid. "A student would be sitting on campus and would essentially order up a song that would be played through the TV network, and then they would be able to record it. It's not unlike the way people now record songs off the radio, which is legal."

The students will share the software with other schools, who they say could operate their own networks for just a few thousand dollars per year. They call that a small price to pay for heading off lawsuits like those the recording industry filed against hundreds of alleged illegal file-swappers.

Here's the catch: The system is operated over the Internet but the music is pumped through MIT's cable television network. That makes it an analog transmission, as opposed to a digital one, in which a file is reproduced exactly.

"The quality will not be as good as copying CDs. It'll be about what you'd expect on FM radio stations, so it's still good, but it's not perfect," said Magid. "And that's part of the solution, because they're not making an exact perfect digital copy."

The idea piggybacks on two things: the broad, cheap licenses given to many universities to "perform" analog music, and the same rules that require radio stations to pay songwriters, but not record companies, to broadcast songs.

It also can broadcast any CD — even ones by popular artists like Madonna and the Beatles who have resisted making their songs available even to legal digital download services.

"I think it's fascinating. As a copyright lawyer, I think they've managed to thread the needle," said Fred Von Lohmann, a lawyer for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. "They've basically managed to cut the record labels out of the equation altogether."

Conceivably, the system could be replicated by the cable system of a city or town, the students said.

But it seems ideally suited for universities, which often operate internal cable networks, and already have these broad performance licenses. College students are among the most enthusiastic file-swappers, and universities are exploring ways, such as fee-based systems, to give their students legal access to music.

The MIT project is called "Library Access to Music," or "LAMP," and here's how it works:

"On MIT cable television you can borrow a channel for 80 minutes, and during that time you can listen to whatever in the collection you'd like to listen to," Winstein said.

The controller then picks songs from among 3,500 CDs — all suggested by students in an online survey over the past year — that Winstein, 22, and Mandel, 20, have compiled.

The music is then pumped into the user's room on that channel and played through a TV, a laptop with an audio jack or external speakers.

Only one person controls each channel at a time, but anyone can listen in. Anyone can also see on another channel what selections are playing and the usernames of the controllers (Winstein acknowledges potential privacy concerns, but there are upsides: He once got a romantic proposition from a user who admired his taste for Stravinsky).

If all 16 channels regularly fill up, MIT could make more available for a few hundred dollars each. Users can listen to, but not store, the music.

The students built the system using part of $25 million grant to MIT from Microsoft Corp., some of which was set aside for student projects.

"We still wanted to do it over the Internet, but MIT's lawyers were not willing to chance that," Winstein said.

Their solution required navigating an alphabet soup of licensing groups. A big challenge was confronting two sets of copyrights: those held by the songwriters on the songs, and those held by record labels on the recordings of the songs. Under the latter, it wasn't clear MIT could simply make available the thousands of CDs MIT already owns in its library.

Instead, the students waited for the National Music Publishers Association's licensing arm to authorize a Seattle company called Loudeye to sell the students MP3s of the 3,500 CDs their fellow students had suggested. The students then paid Loudeye $8 per CD for the MP3s. (They plan to expand the collection as students request more music).

A spokesman for the Recording Industry Association of America, Jonathan Lamy, was provided with a description of the project and, after consulting with RIAA colleagues, declined comment on it.

The students say that because they've done the licensing legwork, other schools could easily follow. All it would take is about $40,000 to cover hardware and a CD collection.

Von Lohmann said that if record labels would grant blanket licenses, as songwriters have, systems like MIT's could handle digital music and solve the peer-to-peer controversy.

"The students get access to a broad array of music, and the copyright owners get paid. This is where we should all be heading," Von Lohmann said. "I hope the record industry takes note and realizes this is a whole lot more promising than suing people."