I was shocked by the recent actions of the Recording Industry Association of America, which call for damages exceeding $150 billion in a lawsuit against four college students for operating search engines on their university networks. The crime of the students: building an indexing tool that allowed members of the university to search through the contents of shared folders that were already available on the network. The RIAA is claiming damages of $150,000 for each of the copyrighted songs (around a million) found by the search engine, perhaps in the hope of setting an example to scare off similar infractions. But however disgraceful the actions of this widely despised and irresponsible organization, this lawsuit makes one point abundantly clear — this University community needs a legal alternative to file-sharing.
College students represent the majority of copyright violators for a simple reason — they are in a learning environment, and they legitimately want to know about musical culture. However, in order to have any academic understanding of modern music (beyond the homogenized pulp available on the ClearChannel radio monopoly), one must be very wealthy — or willing to break the law. Students of lesser means are severely disadvantaged by this system. The fact is that most students at Yale are very familiar with breaking copyright law, because they are not willing to give up learning about music just because they can’t afford the $15 cost of each CD. These students are not looking for porn or video games — they are looking for music, which we consider to be a vital part of a liberal education. Why is the University not providing a legal alternative? I believe that the alternative, a competitive digital library system, hasn’t been technically feasible or easily affordable — until now.
For starters, we need to acknowledge the legitimacy of the intellectual desire held by Yale students to become knowledgeable about music, in particular modern music. Then we need to acknowledge the fact that at a place like Yale we should not limit this kind of knowledge to those capable of paying for it. Like books, we need to offer this information through our library system. Unfortunately, the central music library is barely capable of keeping up with classical music. The solution, surprisingly, is in the modernization of the currently defunct system of residential college libraries.
The residential college masters should revitalize the residential college libraries by enabling these institutions to become repositories and legal distributors of digital media. Music and other forms of intellectual media can be made accessible through the establishment of residential college streaming media libraries, which would virtually eliminate the need for students to engage in copyright violations. Cost: Less than $10,000 per college, taking into account the $8,000 price tag of a server. Streaming media libraries would allow students in a college to access an entire library of digital music over their computers, offering a reasonable, feasible and legal alternative to the convenience of illegal file-sharing. Streaming technology, developed by Yale alum Rob Glaser (founder of RealNetworks), does not involve illegal copying in order to listen to music, very much unlike the downloading of music that occurs with illegal file-sharing. Streaming libraries would allow educational institutions to bring their students almost any kind of copyrighted academic information legally — because that is exactly what libraries do.
To acquire content, masters could allow the formation of elected student music committees, each charged with stewardship over their college library, and responsible for the purchase of $1,000 worth of academically relevant music a semester. In order to abide by the letter and the spirit of copyright law, the streaming software would strictly allow only one person to access a particular album per day, just like a library. This system would not upset the commercial activities of the music industry, and yet it would socioeconomically equalize access to music within this community. Regardless of the system implemented in the end, the demand is clear: Universities must provide a legal alternative to Napster that does not require students of lesser means to break the law in order to legitimately access our musical culture.
Derek Lomas is a senior in Pierson College.