Two students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a system for sharing music within their campus community that they say can avoid the copyright battles that have pitted the music industry against many customers.
The students, Keith Winstein and Josh Mandel, drew the idea for their campus-wide network from a blend of libraries and from radio. Their effort, the Libraries Access to Music Project, which is backed by M.I.T. and financed by research money from the Microsoft Corporation, will provide music from some 3,500 CD's through a novel source: the university's cable television network.
The students say the system, which they plan to officially announce today, falls within the time-honored licensing and royalty system under which the music industry allows broadcasters and others to play recordings for a public audience. Major music industry groups are reserving comment, while some legal experts say the M.I.T. system mainly demonstrates how unwieldy copyright laws have become. A novel approach to serving up music on demand from one of the nation's leading technical institutions is only fitting, admirers of the project say. The music industry's woes started on college campuses, where fast Internet connections and a population of music lovers with time on their hands sparked a file-sharing revolution.
"It's kind of brilliant," said Mike Godwin, the senior technology counsel at Public Knowledge, a policy group in Washington that focuses on intellectual property issues. If the legal theories hold up, he said, "they've sidestepped the stonewall that the music companies have tried to put up between campus users and music sharing."
Hal Abelson, a professor of computer science and engineering at M.I.T., called the system an imaginative approach that reflected the problem-solving sensibility of engineering at the university. "Everybody has gotten so wedged into entrenched positions that listening to music has to have something to do with file sharing," he said. The students' project shows "it doesn't have to be that way at all."
Mr. Winstein, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, described the result as "a new kind of library." He said he hoped it would be a legal alternative to file trading that infringes copyrights. "We certainly hope," he said, "that by having access to all this music immediately, on demand, any time you want, students would be less likely to break the law.'"
While listening to music through a television might seem odd, it is crucial to the M.I.T. plan. The quirk in the law that makes the system legal, Mr. Winstein said, has much to do with the difference between digital and analog technology. The advent of the digital age, with the possibility of perfect copies spread around the world with the click of a mouse, has spurred the entertainment industry to push for stronger restrictions on the distribution of digital works, and to be reluctant to license their recording catalogues to permit the distribution of music over the Internet.
So the M.I.T. system, using the analog campus cable system, simply bypasses the Internet and digital distribution, and takes advantage of the relatively less-restrictive licensing that the industry makes available to radio stations and others for the analog transmission.
The university, like many educational institutions, already has blanket licenses for the seemingly old-fashioned analog transmission of music from the organizations that represent the performance rights, including the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers or Ascap, the Broadcast Music Inc. or B.M.I., and Sesac, formerly the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers.
If that back-to-the-future solution seems overly complicated, blame copyright law and not M.I.T., said Jonathan Zittrain, who teaches Internet law at Harvard and is a director of the university's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The most significant thing about the M.I.T. plan, he said, is just how complicated it has to be to fit within the odd boundaries of copyright law.
"It's almost an act of performance art," Mr. Zittrain said. Mr. Winstein, he said, has "arrayed the gerbils under the hood so it appears to meet the statutory requirement" - and has shown how badly the system of copyright needs sensible revamping.
Representatives of the recording industry, including the Recording Industry Association of America, Ascap and B.M.I., either declined to comment or did not return calls seeking comment.
Although the M.I.T. music could still be recorded by students and shared on the Internet, Professor Abelson said that the situation would be no different from recording songs from conventional FM broadcasts. The system provides music quality that listeners say is not quite as good as a CD on a home stereo but is better than FM radio.
M.I.T. students, faculty and staff can choose from 16 channels of music and can schedule 80-minute blocks of time to control a channel. The high-tech D.J. can select, rewind or fast-forward the songs via an Internet-based control panel. Mr. Winstein and Mr. Mandel created the collection of CD's after polling students.
Mr. Winstein said that the equipment cost about $10,000, and the music, which was bought through a company that provides music on hard drives for the radio industry, for about $25,000. Mr. Winstein said they were making the software available to other colleges.
Students have been using a test version for months, and Mr. Winstein said the system was still evolving. The prototype, for example, shows the name of the person who is programming whatever 80-minute block of music is playing. Mr. Winstein said he once received an e-mail message from a fellow student complimenting him on his choice of music (Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 8) and telling him "I'd like to get to know you better." She signed the note, "*** depraved freshman."
Mr. Winstein, who has a girlfriend, politely declined the offer, and said he realized that he might need to add a feature that would let users control the system anonymously.