How Streaming Media Could Threaten the Mission of Libraries (Chronicle)

August 22, 2014 by 

Digital music has made it easier to buy and share recordings. But try telling that to librarians.

In March 2011, the University of Washington’s library tried to get a copy of a new recording of the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing a piece by Gustavo Dudamel, a popular composer, that the library could lend to students. But the recording was available only as a digital download, and Amazon and iTunes forbid renting out digital files.

So the librarians contacted the Philharmonic to see if there was some way they could get a copy of the Dudamel album that they could loan out like a compact disc. The orchestra referred them to a distributor, which referred them to the publisher, Universal Music Publishing Group. At first the corporation said it couldn’t license the Dudamel recording to the university, according to the librarians. Later it offered to license 25 percent of the album for two years in exchange for a licensing fee plus a $250 processing fee.

No thanks, the librarians said.

Welcome to content licensing, a great source of anxiety for librarians in the digital era. In previous decades, the university librarians might have bought a CD of the Dudamel album for $25 and kept it in circulation it for as long as the disc remained viable. Here they were asked to pay the publisher 10 times that amount (plus a licensing fee that would probably exceed the processing fee) for access to a quarter of the album for two years.

“That’s a new thing in the history of libraries, and a relatively new thing in the history of selling things,” says D.J. Hoek, head of the music library at Northwestern University.

Old-fashioned media—books, tapes, CDs, etc.—are governed by the first-sale doctrine, a legal provision that allows a buyer to do whatever she wants with a copy.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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