How copyright gets in the way.

My weekend reading is this (PDF) paper by Jeff Ubois which details the results of a project completed in May, 2005 at the University of California, Berkeley to measure the accessibility of historic television broadcasts.
It outlines the problems he encountered in trying to research one particular episode in recent US political history – the speech made in 1992 by then Vice-President Dan Quayle attacking the fictional character Murphy Brown and the programme-makers’ response.
Ubois couldn’t get access to the material because of copyright restrictions, severely limiting his ability to put what happened in its historical context. His experiences prompt him to ask a number of important questions, including

  • What is the cost to the educational community of the barriers to information access documented in this study?
  • If different types of records are more or less discoverable, what biases does that introduce into scholarship?
  • What are the societal implications of barriers to access?

Wendy Seltzer spotted it, and she notes that ‘due in part to the vagaries of copyright and contract, public access to the televised part of our historical record is severely limited’. Just as we are losing valuable film because it is decaying in its cans while archivists wait for copyright to expire, so it seems we are losing the chance to base academic research on the audio-visual records of the last century.

I’m still reading the paper, so not sure how much this will apply to the UK – but perhaps its time for all licensed broadcasters to have to deposit a copy of their transmission records, which they all have a legal obligation to keep, with the British Library.

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One Reply to “How copyright gets in the way.”

  1. I thought that in the UK there already was a requirement for broadcasters to lodge copies of their material with the British Film Institute, but checking below it seems to indicate that the independent companies pay them to record just 25pc of output. I’d like to see the content liberated with the help of the UK archive TV ‘continuity’ scene become officially-recognised by the BFI, there’s some wonderful old things available out there.

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