Theft of public property

Here’s something I do care about. The Smithsonian Institution has signed a deal with Showtime to give the network the right of first refusal on documentaries  made with archival materials in its collection, including public domain materials:

On March 9, Showtime and the Smithsonian announced the creation of Smithsonian Networks, a joint venture to develop television programming. Under the agreement, the joint venture has the right of first refusal to commercial documentaries that rely heavily on Smithsonian collections or staff. Those works would first have to be offered to Smithsonian on Demand, the cable channel that is expected to be the venture’s first programming service.

A Smithsonian official who is managing the institution’s content and production assistance for the venture said yesterday that while the new arrangement did limit the ability of commercial filmmakers to sell some projects elsewhere, it ultimately would affect a small number of the works that draw on the museum’s resources.

“It’s not our obligation to help independent filmmakers sell their wares to commercial broadcast and cable networks,” said the official, Jeanny Kim, a vice president for media services for Smithsonian Business Ventures.

“What it boiled down to is that we don’t have the financial resources, the expertise or the production capabilities,” she added, to continue to provide extensive access to materials but not to reap any financial benefit from the result.

She said films that made incidental use of a single interview with a staff member or a few minutes of pictures of elements of the Smithsonian collections would be allowed.

The Showtime venture, under which the Smithsonian would earn payments from cable operators that offered the on-demand service to subscribers, comes as the Smithsonian has suffered financial problems. At a Congressional hearing on Wednesday, a Smithsonian official said some necessary repairs to Smithsonian buildings could not be made because of lack of financing. That led to a suggestion by Representative James P. Moran, Democrat of Virginia, to suggest that the institution should charge admission, a proposal that its board of regents has rejected repeatedly.

Hat tip: Boing Boing. See also Cory Doctorow’s comment on the WIPO there.  The net result of the agreement and the WIPO could be Showtime’s acquisition of a lot of public domain material.

The property of the public, especially the intellectual property of the public, is not the government’s property. And it’s not the administrators of The Smithsonian Institution’s property, either. If the Institution needs money, the administrators should take their case directly to the people.

Here’s my alternative suggestion: let Google digitize the whole shebang and post it on the Internet. That would be better than making it the film library of Showtime or locking it in the basement.

Years ago Jimmy Hatlo produced a two panel comic strip called “They’ll Do It Every Time” that featured the everyday frustrations that drive people bats. In the second panel the poor shmo who was the victim frequently turned bright red and a sort of tornado symbol appeared above his head captioned: “The Urge to Kill”. That’s how I felt when I read this story.

2 comments… add one
  • It’s tricky, but the best solution is probably to find someone or a group of people and institutions willing to sue the Smithsonian for misappropriating their donations. Public domain materials accessible to the public is likely the motivation for a lot of donations to the Smithsonian. Making the attempt to take them out of the public domain unprofitable via lawsuit seems the only way out at this point.

  • bach Link

    There is something WE can do right now! Call your cable or sat op and CANCEL SHOWTIME! Tell them why. Then email Showtime and Smithsonian and say you’ll reconnect when the deal is DUMPED and all employees involved are FIRED. Good old American greed and self-interest will kick in when the politicos (especially the elected ones) and Sumner Redstone see the numbers falling and the bottom line in the toilet.

    Bad things happen when good people do nothing!

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