Keith Winstein and Josh Mandel soon might be the most popular guys on campus. They say they’ve discovered a way to give their fellow students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (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 Oct. 27, 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. They say it’s completely kosher under copyright law.

Lawyers who have reviewed their program agree, but a spokesman for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which is suing hundreds of music lovers including students, refused to comment.

The MIT 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 has 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 downside is the sound quality: better than FM radio, but not as good as a CD.

But the upside is that because the copy isn’t exact, the licensing hurdles are lower. 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.

This is in contrast to what [RIAA] and music vendors are opposed to, said Jim Bruce, vice president of information systems at MIT, who says this service is akin to a cable music channel except the music is available on demand.

We believe this will meet some of the demand of students for a larger collection of music than they have bought, he said.

The MIT project is called “Library Access to Music,” or “LAMP,” and here’s how it works: Users go to a web page and “check out” one of 16 cable channels in the MIT system, which they can control for up to 80 minutes. 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 what selections are playing on other channels as well as the user names 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 a $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 RIAA spokesman, 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.”


MIT’s Library Access to Music Project

Recording Industry Association of America