‘Yesterday’ as an Open Access Movie

General Interest, Information Access

By: Kelly Bilz

I’ve Just Seen A Face, and it was that of Himesh Patel rocking out to some Beatles songs in the recently-released cinema delight, Yesterday. The film follows Jack Malik (played by Patel), who realizes that he is the only one who remembers the Beatles after a global blackout. The movie also resonates with the open access (OA) movement, and though you might be thinking, “Don’t Bother Me with an analysis of a jukebox musical,” just listen: All I’ve Gotta Do is make my case, a brief interpretation From Me To You.

Because I refer to important moments in the movie, there are massive spoilers below—read at your own risk. Haven’t seen Yesterday yet? Well, Tomorrow Never Knows… Take the Long and Winding Road and Get Back to your local movie theater. 

Also, I am 100% confident that no one involved in the making of Yesterday ever had any intention of drawing these parallels to the OA movement, but nevertheless, here I go. (If I Needed Someone to give me permission to write this, I definitely didn’t ask.) And, in case it’s a conflict of interest, I should point out that I absolutely loved this movie. You hear that, cast and crew of Yesterday? She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah). 

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Romantic subplots and song lyrics aside, Yesterday asks the question: what would you do, if you were a musician of some talent, if you were the only one who remembered the Beatles? Rather, what should you do? Is it a lie to pass off songs that you didn’t write as your own? Or, is it a disservice not to share some of the most famous, most influential tunes of all time? Some say You Can’t Do That; others say you should spread their music Here, There and Everywhere. A lot of people have engaged with this ethical question posed by the movie, with much deeper philosophical debate than I have time to talk about here. 

What’s important about all this is that Jack’s act of moral rectification is to share his versions of the Beatles’ songs online for free–which is when, in the dark of the theater, I whispered two words: open access. (It Won’t Be Long before I relate anything to intellectual freedom, in all honesty.) 

SPARC logo, the text in white letters and a red asterisk at the end”

What is the open access movement? According to the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), OA “is the free, immediate, online availability of research articles coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. The documentary Paywall also talks about this issue in academic libraries. Even though academic and research libraries spend millions of dollars on subscriptions through services like Elsevier, most if not all students have encountered a paywall at some point. The issue seems all the more ludicrous when you consider that (A) a lot of research is government-funded, and (B) the peer review process doesn’t cost publishing companies a thing. 

The SPARC Open Access page summaries the dilemma nicely: 

  1. Governments provide most of the funding for research—hundreds of billions of dollars annually—and public institutions employ a large portion of all researchers.
  2. Researchers publish their findings without the expectation of compensation. Unlike other authors, they hand their work over to publishers without payment, in the interest of advancing human knowledge.
  3. Through the process of peer review, researchers review each other’s work for free.
  4. Once published, those that contributed to the research (from taxpayers to the institutions that supported the research itself) have to pay again to access the findings. Though research is produced as a public good, it isn’t available to the public who paid for it. 

In other words, publishing companies are out here acting like Mean Mr. Mustard, and as a result, students essentially have to say Hello, Goodbye to their access, as quickly lost as it was gained, to scholarly journals and essentially, the network of human discovery. If you aren’t at an academic institution, then chances are, you won’t be able to see the studies your tax dollars helped fund at all. We’re all looking over that paywall keeping us from cutting-edge research thinking, I’ve Got To Get You Into My Life. Enter Open Access (OA), along with Open Data and Open Education, and you’ve got the start of an intellectual freedom Revolution

In Yesterday, the character Jack Malik is like the researchers who spend many a Hard Day’s Night on their research, working about Eight Days A Week. Granted, researchers aren’t the only ones who remember whatever finding they discovered or verified or disproved or what have you, but there’s an excitement that comes with discovery and that moment of anticipation before that discovery is shared. Stuart Firestein describes this feeling–that you alone are the only one who knows something that must be known–wonderfully in Ignorance: How It Drives Science, which doesn’t worry about Open Access (or the Beatles) at all: 

“When I was a graduate student, I was working late one night at the lab and I obtained a really unexpected result that answered a long-standing question. It was quite late and there was no one to tell. I remember going home that night and thinking that I should be extra careful in traffic because only I knew this thing and I needed to protect it.”

(p. 160-161) 

Of course, there’s an important distinction here: in the Yesterday universe, intellectual property isn’t an issue. If the band doesn’t exist, they definitely don’t have copyright. In the world of scholarly publishing, however, authorship and citations are a big deal

Yes, the researcher’s findings are their own, but the whole point of publication is sharing that knowledge with the world–and knowledge, though we contribute to it, doesn’t “belong” to anybody. Unfortunately, scholars are still subject to the rules of publishing: even if you want people to view your work for free, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away. There’s also an important difference between artists’ creative work and research funded by the government after the Taxman rolls around. This is a good place to note that the two perhaps most well-known databases with significant free access come from government agencies: PubMed, from the National Library of Medicine, and ERIC, from the Institute of Education Sciences.

This reminds me of probably my second-favorite part of the movie (if you’ve seen it, you can probably guess my first-favorite scene): Jack is confronted by two people who–gasp!–also remember the Beatles. Jack is ready to be reprimanded, but instead, the two simply say, “Thank you.” They’re just happy to hear the songs again–and Jack, as the sole musician of the three, is the one who must take on that role. (Really, imagine a world where you never listen to “Here Comes the Sun” again–it’s a little bleak, right? At least you’d still have that “Twist and Shout” scene from Ferris Bueller, thanks to the Isley Brothers.) We the readers (and I’d like to think the researchers as well) are simply grateful to be part of this messy discourse of human knowledge.

Do You Want To Know A Secret? I (hopefully) am graduating next May, so this issue in particular weighs on me–what will I do when my access to peer-reviewed knowledge is gone? I have a personal stake in this, and I’ve Got A Feeling you do, too. The good news is that it’s Getting Better all the time: University of California, Louisiana State University, and Florida State University have all taken a stand and canceled their “big deal subscriptions” with publishing companies. More institutions are following their lead, and publishing companies like Elsevier are beginning to support open access. 

It’s beginning to look like We Can Work It Out.

Kelly Bilz

Kelly Bilz is a graduate student from Kentucky pursuing her MLIS with a specialization in academic libraries. She works in her university’s Special Collections as well as the local history department of a public library. Kelly first heard about intellectual freedom in her Information in Society course and has spent the time since arguing with her friends about intellectual freedom in algorithms, ethics, and institutional integrity. Because she is passionate about history and the cultural record, Kelly is interested in how intellectual freedom affects access to genealogical records and ethical collecting practices in archives. In her free time, Kelly enjoys listening to podcasts (especially Ear Hustle) and watching old movies (like Lady from Shanghai). Find her on LinkedIn.

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