letters | innovation and protection of rights

Threat of legal action cast a hush over music class

John E. Sununu’s Sept. 2 op-ed “Music dinosaurs pick a bad fight” reminded me of an experience I had as a humanities teacher at an urban community college in Florida. When the subject in my survey course was classical music, I did not just play the work in class. The students were required to study the history, understand the structure, and identify the main themes of each work on an aural exam.

The latter skill required repeated listening. Since it was unreasonable to expect students to buy a CD of each work presented in the course, I prepared cassette tapes — remember that quaint item? — for them to use at home or in the school’s learning lab. Since I taught about 200 students a semester, it was inevitable that some got hooked on classical music and purchased CDs of the music. All of this continued blissfully until someone in the technology department raised an objection and the college’s legal beagles came barking.


They insisted that I had to get written permission from the owner of the copyright. I decided to try a test case. The performance of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony I was using was the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa, distributed by Telarc. I wrote to the company, pointing out, as Sununu does about Lawrence Lessig’s unauthorized videos, that I was “dramatically [enhancing] the recognition and marketability” of the CD in question. “I wish you hadn’t asked,” they wrote, and explained that they would have to get approval from every member of the orchestra.

Result: no more music tapes for the students, no more listening outside of class.

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It is sad to learn that the dinosaurs haven’t changed all that much in 20 years.

Katherine Wyly


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