MIT's 'Library Access to Music' makes sharing legal; system could debut at College

by Zachary Goldstein | 11/11/03 6:00am

A new music sharing network debuted at Massachusetts Institute of Technology last week, giving students legal access to over 3,500 CDs, and a similar system could be implemented at Dartmouth. However, some major hurdles do exist, Director of Telecommunications and Network Services Robert Johnson said.

The MIT system, called "Library Access to Music" or "LAMP," was created by two students, Keith Winstein and Josh Mandel, and it provides students with on-demand access to thousands of songs without the need to fear the wrath of the recording industry.

Although the system is accessed by students through the Internet, the music is sent to dorm rooms via the campus cable television network, not over the Internet itself. That makes it an analog transmission, which does not reproduce an exact copy of the music being shared, unlike a digital transmission. Consequently, listeners can hear the CD they have chosen, but cannot download or copy it, thereby making it impossible to create exact copies of the CD.

The downside of analog reproduction is the sound quality, which is not as good as a CD but remains better than FM radio. However, by broadcasting in analog, legally licensing the shared music files is substantially easier and cheaper for an institution, with the necessary licenses resembling those required for a radio station.

And though systems such as LAMP could conceivably impact CD sales just as illegal file-sharing does, the Recording Industry Association of America has lauded the MIT system.

"It is good to see a technologic powerhouse like MIT is interested in the digital music problem and doing it legally," RIAA President Cary Sherman said.

LAMP has already hit its first snag, however. After going live last Monday, MIT announced Friday that it was shutting down the system temporarily while it clarified the legality of its licensing agreements.

Winstein and Mandel said they had worked out an agreement with the National Music Publishers Association to grant a license to Seattle-based Loudeye corporation to sell the school the thousands of songs necessary for the system at a cost of eight dollars per CD. However, last week NMPA said that agreement was not yet complete, while Loudeye insisted it was, having already sold the music to MIT.

"We have taken it down temporarily to show good faith and because the whole point is to be very, very careful and obey the copyright law," Winstein said.

Though the music is actually sent out to the campus over one of 16 cable channels reserved for LAMP, the actual facilitation and control of LAMP is done through a website. There MIT students can "check-out" one of the 16 channels for up to 80 minutes and can listen to any music they choose.

Only one person can be in control of the music playing on each of the 16 channels at a given time; however, all students can see what is playing on the channels being controlled by others and can listen to their selections.

The funding for the research and development of the system came from Microsoft by way of a $25 million iCampus grant to MIT.

The students plan to publish the LAMP design and software as open-source, making it available to be freely implemented at other universities that like the idea and have a suitable infrastructure.

The cost to replicate LAMP on another campus, such as at Dartmouth, would be around $40,000 for hardware and the CD collection, according to Winstein, with a total recurring cost of about 60 cents per student per year to pay for the necessary licenses.

The analog cable channels that would be necessary to facilitate a system like LAMP at Dartmouth are already in place, but the current system has reached its capacity at 61 channels, Johnson said. All of those channels are currently being used for television.

That leaves two options for LAMP to be used on campus. Either the College would have to undergo a major overhaul of the network to increase the number of channels available, or television channels would have to be taken away to make space for music channels. Neither option is appealing to Johnson.

"Right now to run music we'd have to take away TV channels," Johnson said, "and I'm not sure students would prefer the music over the TV. And even if we added channels it would be a choice between music channels or more TV channels."

However, even if the system could be immediately implemented on campus, Network Services Director Bill Brawley questioned the desirability of the service. Even the fact that it is legal is not going to be enough to attract a large number of illegal online file-sharers, he said.

"I don't think most people want to listen to their music just on the TV," Brawley said. "Most people want to have their music files on their computer to mix and burn. People have gotten used to having music their way."