Today’s Globe (and NPR’s Morning Edition) discuss the startup of MIT’s LAMP project: Reinventing the jukebox on campus [pdf] (MIT press release). The trick to the project is that, while the digital telecommunications infrastructure is used to request the music, the music is actually delivered over an analog channel, avoiding the pitfalls of current copyright law when it comes to digital delivery.
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.
[...] 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 [LAMP co-developer Keith] Winstein. “We were totally wrong.”
This strategy should scare the entertainment industries, not to mention the consumer electronics firms that have committed to digital delivery. This project shows that there is enough resistance to the current construction of copyright in the digital realm that people are prepared to design around the strictures, at the expense of the supposedly better technology. I believe that, if the FCC approves the broadcast flag, a similar response will arise in the television industry.
Consumer backlash is only going to get stronger, as the copyright industries continue to exploit the opportunities for increased control that digital telecomm offers them. And, as Phil Greenspun notes in this Globe article on Kodak’s plans to stop making slide projectors, there are more than just legal reasons to reject some of these technologies.
”It’s expensive, and there is a subtle loss of quality, like going from long-playing records to compact discs.”
Contrast this LAMP system with the Penn State system that Derek alerted me to last week: Spin Machine: Penn State’s Download Service. Although the article is skimpy on details, I love this bit from the president of the university:
“We like our approach to be educational in nature, not criminal,” [PSU president] Spanier said.
IMHO, understanding why the MIT system is legal might be even more educational! In particular, I can already think of one excellent economics question exploring the relative costs of (a) paying digital copyright licensing fees (and facing the legal lawsuit risks of a digital music network) and (b) building out the analog communications infrastructure.
(See this paper, by one of LAMP’s developers: Engineering an Accessible Music Library: Technical and Legal Challenge)
The NYTimes article includes a photo of the designers and a nice Zittrain quote: With Cable TV at M.I.T., Who Needs Napster? [pdf]
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.
Update: Slashdot discussion — MIT’s New Music Sharing Network. A particularly pointed comment:
How is this a good thing? (Score:1)
by no_choice (558243) on Monday October 27, @01:38PM (#7320571)
Let me get this straight: we already have numerous P2P networks through which people can freely share digital media. These guys have created a system that distributes ANALOG versions of digital songs; only distributes data deigned appropriate by a central authority; only distributes locally, not worldwide; only allows users to hear the music from their TV, and not move it elsewhere.
And this is supposed to be a good thing?
No wonder Microsoft is funding the research… creating “innovations” that make people’s lives worse instead of better seems to be their specialty.
The only “benefit” I can see from the MIT system over P2P file sharing is that the MIT system allows the RIAA executives to continue to harvest extreme wealth from the creativity of underpaid artists and the greed of contribution-hungry politician.
Instead of creating technical kludges that make our lives worse instead of better, would it not be better to junk the DMCA and other obsolete copyright laws bought and paid for by the RIAA and friends?