Watch America's public domain video treasures, rescue the public domain from paywalls

Rogue archivist Carl Malamud sez,

Did you know you can watch Richard Nixon explain why he's innocent, see the Hindenburg, or view an official bio of General George S. ("Georgie") Patton? All these videos have been buried in a vault.

I'll be testifying December 16 before the House Oversight Committee on the topic (take a deep breath) "History Museum or Records Access Agency? Defining and Fulfilling the Mission of the National Archives and Records Administration." The first panel will feature the new Archivist, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, and the Librarian of Congress. I'm on the second panel of citizens.

You can help me prepare my testimony by watching videos on YouTube or the Internet Archive. If you want to watch videos from the National Archives today, they try to talk you into buying a DVD from the official government partner, Amazon.Com. The government web site has a 320x240 2 minute preview, using an old Microsoft codec, and all the search results encourage you to purchase from "our partner, Amazon.Com."

I've got nothing against Amazon selling this stuff. It is public domain, after all. But, I do have a real problem when the government deliberately cripples itself by not making video available to all. To demonstrate to the Congress that if we liberated this wonderful content people would really care, I forked over $251 for 20 DVDs and posted them on-line.

I'll be counting the number of views and reporting that information in my testimony. Help me show Congress we care about history:

Watch videos on the Internet Archive.

Watch videos on YouTube.

Knock yourself out, view one, view them all ... help me make the case that the National Archives should be all about access and preservation and that exclusive deals that bottle up the public domain are just not a good idea.

My friend Paula LeDieu at the British Film Institute has a great riff on these commercialization efforts. We -- the taxpayers -- were the angel and Series A investors in this video, and our ROI is measured by how much of the video we get to see and use, and what new things get made with it. The argument that locking up the video and selling it to us allows for the production of more video basically says that a new investor -- the commercial partners of the government archives -- should be able to dilute our interest down to zero by contributing a paltry few new dollars to the project. That is, our return on investment should be obliterated so that a latecomer can clean up. If this was a corporation, we'd have a shareholder lawsuit -- and we'd probably fire the board of directors and the CEO.

National Archives and Record Administration (Thanks, Carl!)



  1. i love this old, dry footage.
    the link appears not to be working though. possibly an error

  2. When I was doing some research in College Park, I liberated some video footage of the 100th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, as well as a nice chunk of newsreel:

    NARA has some really great film footage, and they are in the process of dubbing much of it from SuperVHS to DVD for easy access by researchers (and thereby easy copying by researchers). I copied this over from SuperVHS to DVD myself using a rig they have onsite, then ripped it to the PC later on.

    Anyone can go into the archives at College Park, MD, so if you’re in the area and want to have a day worth of historic video watching fun, drop by. I’m hopeful that NARA can get most of this online, but I’m beginning to see how long these things take in the government.

  3. Is it inevitable that we are moving into an age where the Public Domain is government property, and may be sold to the highest bidder? It would not surprise me in the least if the next round of copyright law allows the government to reappropriate the public domain, giving the latecomers an even greater windfall as long as the government gets to share in the take.

    And similarly, I fully expect some court, someday, to rule that releasing under a Creative Commons or similar license is manifest intent to deed the work to the public domain – that is, the government. That will let Big Content simply buy out the free competition.

  4. You can tell you’re Canadian (like me) cuz you bought a DVD and uploaded it to the net.. you communist. :)

    Fight the good fight, Mr Glasses.

  5. The video “The Pueblo Incident” seems very relevant to the Wikipedia article about the Pueblo, so I’ve added a link from the article to the video. I’d never have found this if it was only available for purchase from a commercial vendor. Even if I’d known that the video was available commercially and added that information to the Wikipedia article, I doubt that most readers of the article would have been willing and able to purchase the video.

  6. Unless I’m missing something…

    Amazon has a non-exclusive right to reproduce the footage onto disks. Their rights to the material is non-exclusive because it’s public domain and anyone could do the same with equal footing.

    The actual disks have a cost. The government isn’t going to underwrite the cost of producing, reproducing and distributing disks. Now, technology has advanced to the point that the material could be archived and streamed, but someone would have to prepare the material for streaming which would come at a cost and in this instance, Mr. Malamud has provided that service.

    Perhaps Congress could be persuaded to finance the transference of the remaining material, but that would also come at a cost and would have to be budgeted.

    As a taxpayer, I would object to any one company (Google/YouTube) having exclusive streaming rights, so if the electronic encoding were to occur on the government dime, it would need to be prepared in a format that could stream via any service (current and future), or it would need to exist on a government server.

    Way back in the early days of the internet, myself and hundreds of others took government-prepared, public domain documents and had them typed into an electronic format, so they could be served on our websites. We underwrote this effort with the promise of advertising and there were no limits on who was doing it, we just had to obtain the material and pay for the encoding ourselves.

    IOW: I don’t see any kind of evil plot. Up until relatively recently, disks were the most efficient way to make this material available and Amazon seized an opportunity. Obviously the technology now exists to stream the material, but unless an army of volunteers were to appear, it’ll have to be paid for and if tax dollars will be used for this effort, Congress would have to provide for it and no one company could benefit.

    Though of course, if Google, Microsoft or somebody wanted provide this service, they’d just be doing the same as Amazon (on equal footing) and the project could be started tomorrow.

    1. BTW: I realize that Mr. Malamud hasn’t implied an “evil plot” and I fully support his efforts. Thus far, Amazon has been the only player because they have a way to pay for it. Hopefully, Mr. Malamud can convince Congress to go the rest of the way.

  7. ref.: #10

    Halas, last time i checked, all videos were not free. For some, you can only view short crap abstracts and if you want the integral video you have to fork money to dwnload it.

  8. HAving been an employee of NARA, I don’t think any of you really understand what incredible tiny budgets the agency works with and the quality of the staff that they’re able to keep with those budgets. The day I left NARA in the 90s I almost tripled my salary from $19k to $55k per year.

    These public/private partnerships brought in needed equipment and staff to get the job done that couldn’t get done under the budgets.

    the concept that anyone has “rescued” footage from NARA, however, is uneducated, naive and insulting. Anyone suggesting that simply DOES NOT GET IT.

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