Napster Returns: The Value of the College Lecture


Drake Bennett had an interesting piece in the Boston Globe yesterday about intellectual property and the university. A few years ago a Harvard graduate, Andrew Magliozzi started a website called Among other things FinalsClub pays Harvard students to post their class notes online. But the site is not just an aid for slackers. According to the Globe article:

Magliozzi, however, insists that there’s a higher purpose. He is taking the substance of Harvard courses, information previously sequestered within the ivory tower, and offering it free to anyone with an Internet connection.

As a result, thanks to technology, one of the core functions of a university – distributing information through its professors – is no longer entirely in its control. It’s a potentially unsettling development for universities and professors, and it has found its way into court, as professors take on commercial note services and grapple with how much to limit the recording and even filming of their lectures. And as it grows easier to publish online and as more and more people gain ready access to the Web, the issue seems likely to only grow.

Is there anything wrong with offering notes from class lectures to everyone? Does anyone own the rights to the lecture?

While no one argues that this exchange of class notes would actually render a Harvard education an open admissions concept, the implication is that there’s a distinct value to an academic lecture and that value is in some respect equivalent to the value of Harvard University itself.

Some professors have no objection to their lectures being offered on the site. As Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker put it: “There’s nothing that I would say in class that I wouldn’t say in any other public forum, so I kind of had nothing to hide.”

Not everyone is so pleased with Harvard economist Greg Mankiw refused to participate. But his concern wasn’t so much about the lofty monetary value of his lectures so much as he just didn’t want to do anything to make it easier for students to skip his class.

We’ve seen this sort of discussion before. Remember online music file sharing service Napster?

Exactly. The worry some have is that a freely available college lecture cuts into the value of the services colleges offer: education. Once someone can provide information for free, he will do so. And while it won’t be free forever this sort of thing, the potential for free information, always reduced the price of that information.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer