Harvard University’s recent decision to make faculty publications available online at no cost is the latest step forward in a decade-long push for open access to educational materials.

In the late nineties, projects such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare and Rice University’s Connexions were just beginning to take shape. Since that time, online educational offerings have expanded dramatically: OpenCourseWare, for example, offers materials for over 1800 courses, available to anyone with a computer and internet access. Yale made its first foray into the virtual arena last semester by launching the Yale Open Courses site, where one can download high quality video and audio recordings of various courses and lectures held on campus.

The common thread uniting these initiatives is the recognition that it makes little sense to keep academic products locked away behind the walls of the university where only paying students are privy to them. In an age when technology has lowered distribution costs to nearly zero, there are few remaining barriers between a wealth of knowledge and those who desire it. Some students and professors have expressed concerns that giving away these materials devalues the educational investment of those who pay to attend classes. But to make this claim is to the ignore fundamental relationships supporting our educational process, such as interacting with professors and receiving feedback on coursework. After all, if you really think listening to online lectures is equivalent to actually taking classes, how can you justify being at a university in the first place?

As academics have recognized, getting paid requires sharing interaction with warm bodies in the classroom and experiments in the laboratory and has little to do with the goings-on online. To make a comparison to the music industry, if your professor is a rock star, the way she’s making her money is not by selling albums, but by selling concert tickets. In fact, our rock stars at MIT and Yale are actually giving away their ‘albums’ for free on the Internet.

Despite this difference, the academy’s approach to open access parallels the current plight of the music industry quite nicely. Rampant piracy, declining CD sales and high-profile artists dumping their labels have the record companies reeling. Their response has been to lobby vigorously for friendly legislation and copyright extensions. The campaign has proven effective: the United States’ first copyright act set an initial protection of 14 years on registered works. After sundry extensions, many works are protected for well over a century to come. If I write a song tomorrow and live to be 85, that song will not fall into the public domain until 2140 – and that’s assuming that no further extensions are passed.

On Thursday, Charles McCreevy, EU Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, suggested that the EU’s fifty year copyright term for music performers ought to be extended to ninety-five years. His reasoning? “If nothing is done, thousands of European performers who recorded in the late 1950s and 1960s will lose all of their airplay royalties over the next ten years.”

You’ll have to forgive me if I’m not exactly horrified at the prospect of performances made four or five decades ago ceasing to earn royalties. Proposals like McCreevy’s miss an important point: Not only is fifty years of royalties more than enough compensation for a performer, but a performer’s real work is, well, to perform. I’m unsure of how sitting around in retirement collecting royalties qualifies as performance. The Apostle Paul put it well: If you don’t work, you won’t eat.

This is no doubt an unwelcome sound to the ears of record companies and musicians alike. If musicians shift to a financial model based on live performance instead of album sales, their labels will have a harder time making money off of them, as there will no longer be a product to distribute. This is currently the situation in academia – why buy a set of DVDs from The Teaching Company when you can download a series of lectures for free? Or, as the question that follows Harvard’s open access initiative poses: Why pay thousands of dollars for a journal subscription when you can access scholarly papers right from the institutions’s web site?

On the other side of the analogy, this also means that musicians will have to tour in order to support themselves, and rock stars will no longer be able to live like rock stars. They’ll have to tone it down a bit, live more modestly – perhaps, even, like a college professor.

Gabriel Michael is a graduate student in the Divinity School. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.