Yale has a proud tradition of upholding a standard of equality among its students, regardless of socioeconomic status. There is a wide range of students at Yale, some of whom come from backgrounds of extreme wealth, and some from extreme poverty. Regardless, Yale’s need-blind admissions and need-based financial aid ensures that these students have an equal academic footing at Yale. Students who cannot afford computers nonetheless have scores available to them. Students who cannot afford to see the world may still do so, courtesy of an extensive list of grants and fellowships.
I am certain that this liberal value of the equality of information access is deeply and sincerely held by the most senior members of the Yale administration. However, today’s news of lawsuits against “music-downloaders” brings to light one major academic area where the playing ground deeply favors the well off: the study of 20th-century music. Music is a very popular intellectual interest at Yale, and yet there is no suitable way to access music without buying scores of expensive CDs or illegally copying them.
Why is it that in order to pursue an intellectual or academic interest in 20th-century music one must be either very wealthy or willing to break the law?
Napster-like downloading programs enabled students on a tight budget to access vast areas of music — music unavailable to them had they not been willing to break the law. Now that it is clear, however, that there will be definite penalties to copyright infringement (as demonstrated by the hundreds of lawsuits filed by the music industry), Yale should stay true to its core values by leveling the economic playing ground for those who pursue music as literature. As of a decade ago, making the music of the 20th century available to Yale students would have been prohibitively costly. However, several technological solutions make this extension of our already impressive academic library entirely feasible.
One such solution are Residential College Streaming Media Libraries, similar to the one recently initiated by the Pierson College Council. These libraries can each purchase hundreds of dollars of relevant music each semester and make this music available at Yale via streaming technology (developed by Robert Glaser ’83 of RealNetworks). Through special restrictions, such as ensuring that only one person streams a work at a time, these libraries can abide by copyright law just like brick-and-mortar libraries — at least according to several members of the Yale Law School Information Society Project. These libraries could buy any music (like traditional libraries), and with the appropriate restrictions, make it available to the Yale community. If this solution were initiated by other residential college libraries, such that a student committee within each college decided what music to acquire, then these Streaming Media Libraries could solve our problem of equal access, as well as revitalize the role of college libraries on campus.
Another, more immediately viable solution is to form a scholastic partnership with a music streaming company, such as Pressplay, to provide commercially streamed music to Yale students at a reasonable low price (less than $10 per month, per student). These services provide hundreds of thousands of songs, and a comprehensive collection, and could be compared to our existing academic journal subscriptions. However, the commercial nature of these services prevents them from making many important artists available, but because the Streaming Media Libraries could more easily provide obscure and controversial works, perhaps these two solutions could compliment each other.
Regardless of the specifics of the solution, Yale should examine how to provide equal socioeconomic access to the important cultural literature of 20th-century music — and should do so quickly — to provide alternatives for students whose respectable interest in music is risking them serious legal action.
Derek Lomas ’03 was in Pierson College.