• United States
by Ann Harrison

File trading the U.S. Supreme Court recordings

Jul 24, 20033 mins
Enterprise Applications

* File sharing technologies provide some golden opportunities

The debate over music downloads often overshadows opportunities offered by file trading technologies to efficiently distribute historical spoken word recordings.

An excellent example of this potential in action is offered by the Oyez (pronounced o-yay) project, which provides free MP3 downloads of original recordings of historic court cases.

Jerry Goldman, a professor of political science at Northwestern University who runs the project, notes that listening to groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court arguments gives listeners a sense of emotion not found in transcripts.

Goldman is hoping the project will create a community of listeners who analyze and annotate the proceedings before passing the recordings onto others. What a brilliant idea.

While immensely useful for law students who want to learn which arguments work before the justices, anyone who has never been at the Supreme Court to witness a major legal decision can get a sense of the drama behind the making of history. Distrust the media’s interpretation of a major decision? Listen for yourself and make up your own mind.

Among the top hits in the collection are Sarah Weddington and Jay Floyd’s arguments from the Roe vs. Wade case, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passionate majority opinion in U.S. vs. Virginia which found that the Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions policy was unconstitutional. These tapes let you hear the justices thinking out loud and the sometimes-pointed arguments between them.

The Oyez project intends to digitize every oral argument before the Supreme Court, nearly all of which have been recorded since 1955. The project has converted 2,000 hours of oral arguments into digital form and has an estimated 4,000 hours to go. 

The original tapes are available at the National Archives months after the ruling. The Oyez recording team converted them first to streaming audio and is now offering MP3 files for easier distribution. As it turns out, the file trading format helps elucidate history; The Oyez tapes offer not only oral arguments, but also provides audio of justices speaking from the bench which may not be identified in the National Archive tapes. The MP3 format allows these works to be more easily edited.

The Oyez files can be downloaded and swapped by anyone who follows a Creative Commons free copyright license, which allows the works to be shared as long as they are attributed to the original source and used for non-commercial purposes. Any derivative work based on the tapes must also be shared.

This is a good solution for content providers that want efficient distribution over file-sharing networks, but also wish to maintain credit for their work with the assurance that it won’t be resold.