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MIT explores options for legal downloads

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MIT is exploring a range of services that would allow legal access to digital music, according to Professor James D. Bruce, vice president for information systems.

"Most MIT students, like students everywhere, are into music," Bruce said. "You see it in the number of students walking our hallways with Walkmans, iPods and radios. We also see it in the network bandwidth consumed, as well as in the number of DCMA [Digital Millenium Copyright Act] 'take-down notices' and now RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] subpoenas we are receiving."

The services under consideration generally fall into two categories.

The first is a subscription-based "streaming" model that provides access to a library of music for a monthly fee. The advantage of this type of service is that it allows users to listen to a larger selection of music than they would be able to buy themselves. The main disadvantage is that a user must be connected to a network to listen.

The other type of service is the pay-per-download model popularized by Apple's iTunes Music Store. Users of this type of service get rights similar to those of CD purchasers: they may burn CDs, play the music on several computers even if they aren't network-connected and put the files on portable digital music players. The profit margins in this type of business are small, making it unlikely that MIT could negotiate much of a discount on the roughly $1 per song download fee, Bruce said. MIT might undertake such negotiations if student interest ran high enough.

One project already underway at MIT is the Library Access to Music Project (LAMP). LAMP bears some similarity to the streaming model but also resembles an all-request radio station. When it comes online, LAMP will broadcast 16 channels of music for free over the MIT cable system. Students will use a web browser to make requests from a library of about 1,000 CDs.

LAMP is a joint project of MIT Cable, the MIT Libraries, iCampus, Information Systems and the Student Information Processing Board. The project solicits CD purchase suggestions at

When preliminary inquiries into the different music services are complete, student input will help determine the future of legal music downloads on campus.

In the meantime, Bruce had this cautionary message for those who rely on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks for their tunes:

"All members of the MIT community need to understand that unauthorized downloading and sharing of computer files containing a song, a movie, a software program or a game is against the law. It can expose individuals to both civil and criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 10, 2003.

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