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Thursday, October 30, 2003

With Cable TV at M.I.T., Who Needs Napster?

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.

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.

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.

Mr. Winstein, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, described the result as "a new kind of library."
"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.'"

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.

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.

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, "Sex 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.

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