Jerry Goldman is determined to archive every recorded oral argument and bench statement in the Supreme Court since 1955, when the Court began to tape-record its public proceedings. Goldman, a professor of political science at Northwestern, founded the OYEZ Project in 1989 “to create and share a complete and authoritative archive of Supreme Court audio.” This month the OYEZ mission takes a new step forward with the release of hundreds of hours of MP3 versions of their archived audio under a Creative Commons license.
We spoke with Jerry recently about The OYEZ Project, their use of Creative Commons licenses, and the impact of their new MP3 release.
CC: What inspired you to create The OYEZ Project?
Jerry Goldman: In the late 1980s Professor Linda Kerber gave a talk at Northwestern University on her project dealing with gender discrimination in the law. Kerber played a few audio excerpts from the oral arguments in Hoyt v. Florida, a case that upheld the exemption of women from jury service. The audio was enlightening because it opened up a new way of thinking about the Court and grasping its work. It was my view that technology could enable a better use of these materials.
A later demonstration of such technology was equally inspiring. Two English professors visited Northwestern to discuss their Shakespeare project. Using an early Mac, a video-laser disc player, a color monitor, and some speakers, they demonstrated how one could highlight, say, Act II Scene 3 from Macbeth and then instantly play back the corresponding video. The ability to integrate text, audio, and video lay the groundwork for future OYEZ projects involving audio and annotation tools.
CC: After you became interested in the Court’s audio recordings, how did The OYEZ Project begin?
JG: The earliest version of The OYEZ Project dates back to 1989. I came up with the idea of presenting our Supreme Court data and archives like a baseball card collection while sitting at a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field. The idea materialized into a pre-web version consisting of complex HyperCard stacks. The stacks contained an elementary demonstration of video and audio linked to background information on the individual justices and the cases they decided. As a tribute to OYEZ’s origin we created the “Law-Baseball Quiz,” an idea from the creative mind of the late law professor, Robert Cover.
The transition to downloadable MP3s is a result of working with Chris Karr, a creative and forward-thinking computer scientist and web architect. Chris made me wake up to the need for wider sharing of our materials. I’m greatly indebted to him and quite pleased to acknowledge his contribution to the Creative Commons effort and to the entire re-conceptualization of The OYEZ Project.
CC: How did you obtain the Supreme Court audio materials? Why have you decided to release them?
JG: We purchased and collected the audio from the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. The audio materials — principally in the form of oral arguments — are the core of The OYEZ Project.
We released the public proceedings because they are some of the greatest intellectual and legal debates of our era. Transcripts — even with the justices identified — lack the emotive qualities of humor, irony and anger, which audio conveys. The first Roe v. Wade argument (the case was reargued) stands out in my mind. When Jay Floyd, representing the state of Texas, began his argument, he tried a bit of good-ole-boy humor, which was met by the Court’s silence. (Remember that the bench was all men in the early 1970s.) His argument headed downhill from there. Sarah Weddington, representing Jane Roe, made a kitchen-sink argument, throwing every thing she could imagine at the Court. That struck me as pointless, though some of the justices were very gentle about it. Among the announcements of opinions, the Regents v. Bakke audio stands out. In a rare exercise, the justices spoke at length about their disagreements in the case, and the emotions are palpable.
CC: Government works are essentially uncopyrightable. How did you obtain the copyright for these works?
JG: The OYEZ audio is a derivative work because we’ve made technical and editorial judgments that depart from the original source. The raw audio we obtain from the National Archives often needs to be edited. Sometimes, the first part of an argument will exist on one reel and the remainder is on a second. We dub both reels and then match them up, removing any overlap. We have voice corrected many hours of audio because of timbre and pitch problems.
CC: How does this MP3 release add to what OYEZ is offering currently? What good might come of this for OYEZ in the future?
JG: It offers new independence to users by permitting downloads of OYEZ audio and promoting the sharing of those materials — subject to our Creative Commons license — on peer-to-peer networks. While we enjoy our popularity in academic and educational circles, we can reach more listeners by enabling downloadable versions. With the development of Creative Commons, we have, for the first time, a way to license our content that assures use consistent with our objectives.
The more I listen to the recordings the more I realize that the true value is not in the audio itself but in a community of dedicated listeners and scholars who could add to the audio. The original Court transcripts do not identify the justices, only the attorneys. Adding transcripts and voices to the audio would help create a searchable audio archive. For instance, you could search and listen to any audio where Scalia used the expression “strict scrutiny.” Listeners could annotate audio by pinpointing selections that illustrate good and bad advocacy, or particularly interesting views on an issue, and then share their annotation findings with others in a shared community. Encouraging a community to select and identify audio clips will increase awareness of OYEZ audio as a primary source for scholarship and teaching.
CC: Why did you decide to use Creative Commons licenses? Why do you think this project is important?
JG: Creative Commons has a good solution to the nagging problem of commercialization and is based on a solid theory regarding the power of creativity. We want to contribute to that creative enterprise. It doesn’t make sense to maintain the high transaction costs associated with acquiring these materials. Having made this investment — with the help of many institutions —it is our responsibility to freely share this treasure.
Peer-to-peer networking is getting a bad name as a result of the enormous amount of unlicensed music file-sharing. By making our collection available we are emphasizing a good use of P2P and hopefully inspiring other content creators to recognize that there is more to be gained by sharing than by withholding their work from the public.
We hope OYEZ audio will be used by law students, Supreme Court junkies, practicing attorneys, teachers, and the general public. To borrow from the immortal Yogi Berra: “You can hear a lot by listening.” The experience is daunting and thrilling, and my hope is that by listening and learning, the quality of advocacy and communication will improve.