Video sites YouTube and IFILM have agreed to take down popular clips of Stephen Colbert’s routine at the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner, as demanded by the somewhat stodgier C-SPAN. (AP report via Wired News here.) It turns out that C-SPAN owns the copyright to the entire dinner. The Colbert routine is posted on the network’s own web site, which also hosts a policy wonk’s dream video library. It is also posted on Google Video (under an agreement that requires Google to place prominent links to C-SPAN’s web site).
C-SPAN defends its actions here, saying:
Our goal in enforcing our copyright has been and continues to be to ensure that C-SPAN’s reputation for unbiased coverage of the political process is maintained.
This is not an isolated problem. As I have learned from broadcasters while working on the Berkman Center’s project on educational uses of content, C-SPAN generally denies permission for anyone to use its footage in internet streaming, even those willing to pay for a license. In one apparently typical instance, congressional testimony about illegal drugs had to be cut from the online version of an episode of the public television series Frontline. That’s a lot more serious than a stand-up comic routine.
C-SPAN has the legal right to withhold permission for streaming — it is a private initiative of the cable industry, not a government entity. Presumably the network wants to maintain control of its online library of footage.
But this seems like a horrifically short-sighted strategy for a network that says its “mission is to provide public access to the political process.” And I don’t see how licensing raw tape of events in Washington (as opposed to call-in shows or something else with editorial content) could compromise “C-SPAN’s reputation for unbiased coverage of the political process.”
The Beyond Broadcast conference at Berkman this week will consider how traditional media institutions can adapt and thrive in the new environment of digital public media. Maybe C-SPAN executives should tune in.