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Reinventing the jukebox on campus

System by MIT pair reinvents jukebox

Armed with a clever idea and a $60,000 grant from Microsoft Corp., two students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have wired the campus for sound. They've built a system to deliver popular music to student dormitories, without the illegal file swapping that's goaded the recording industry into a furious round of copyright lawsuits.

Keith Winstein, 22, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, and Josh Mandel, 21, a junior with the same major, spent two years on the system, which goes into operation today. The Library Access to Music Project, or LAMP, lets members of the MIT community log onto an Internet server and order up their favorite tunes.

Winstein and Mandel never thought it would take so long to build LAMP. They soon discovered that building a system that would pass muster under federal copyright law is a lot more complicated than soldering circuit boards.

"We assumed that the technical part of doing this would be the hard part," said Winstein. "We were totally wrong."

The students had hoped to stream the music files in digital form over the campus computer network. Then they learned that copyright law sets strict limits on such activities.

"It turns out the licenses for doing this are very, very complicated," Winstein said. For instance, Internet broadcasters are required to pay licensing fees to the recording companies, something radio stations have never had to do.

But Winstein and Mandel found a loophole. The tough limits on digital music broadcasting didn't apply to analog broadcasting, the kind used by MIT's cable television systems. A cable broadcaster simply pays a blanket royalty fee to the major music licensing organizations, such as the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers, or ASCAP.

Like most colleges, MIT already pays such a fee to those organizations. And a cable broadcaster doesn't pay the additional royalty to the record companies. So Winstein and Mendel built a network that takes orders over the Internet, but plays the music back over the cable system.

But they still had to work out a legal way to obtain recordings for broadcast.

Winstein and Mandel used an Internet-based survey of MIT students to choose the music in the LAMP library. They settled on about 3,400 albums, ranging from the popular to the obscure. It took a year of negotiations with the National Music Publishers Association to reach agreement on a reasonable licensing fee for copies of the music.

Loudeye Corp., a digital music distribution firm, provided the tunes, prerecorded on computer hard drives, for about $30,000.

While LAMP is legal, it features built-in compromises that may make it unattractive to some users. For instance, using analog broadcasting lowers the sound quality. Listeners must use a television set to hear the tunes or a VCR with speakers or a personal computer with an add-on television tuner card.

In addtion, the system allows only 16 users to request music at the same time. Each user can listen for up to 80 minutes. That's not very many listening channels for a school with more than 6,000 students, but Mandel points out that those who are frozen out of requests can still tune into the audio streams.

"While only 16 people can request music, everybody can listen to music," Mandel said. Besides, if the system proves popular, it would be relatively easy to increase the number of channels, Mandel said.

Hal Abelson, the MIT professor who supervised the project, said the money came from a $300,000 fund provided by Microsoft for the investigation of "neat ideas" dreamed up by students. Abelson said the LAMP plan easily qualifies.

"It's so inexpensive and easy to do, why not?" he said.

Now that they've done the hard work of creating LAMP, Mandel and Winstein say they plan to give away software and hardware specifications to anyone who wants them. That way, campuses with cable television networks can set up their own music libraries.

The Recording Industry Association of America, which has been leading the charge against illegal file-sharing, had no comment on LAMP.

Given the LAMP system's limits, it's unclear whether it will deter students from illegal file swapping, which lets them listen to whatever they want, whenever they want. Winstein concedes the point. "It certainly does not substitute for all file-swapping," he said. "We certainly hope that students will be less likely to break the law because of this easily accessible library."

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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