“America’s Attic” sells out to Showtime Networks.

Seems the folks at The Smithsonian, commonly referred to as “America’s Attic”, have decided to sell an exclusive right of first refusal to the folks at the commercial netowrk Showtime on their extensive film archive which includes no small amount of material that is in the Public Domain. A move that effectively removes that material from the Public Domain and one that has pissed off a number of documentary producers:

“I find this deal terrifying,” Mr. Burns said in a telephone interview from San Francisco, where he is filming interviews for a documentary on the history of the national parks. “It feels like the Smithsonian has essentially optioned America’s attic to one company, and to have access to that attic, we would have to be signed off with, and perhaps co-opted by, that entity.”

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.

That’s right, if you make a documentary that draws heavily from the archive of the Smithsonian you have to agree to give Showtime’s On Demand video service first crack at it. The reasoning behind this decision? Money, of course:

“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.

Why charge admission when they can probably make a lot more money selling exclusive rights to material in the public domain to a corporate interest? Best of all they’ve made the agreement vague on purpose so they can pick and choose which documentaries fall under the agreement:

Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokeswoman, said the details of the contract with Showtime were confidential and would not be released publicly. She said the outlines of the agreement had been left deliberately vague to allow the Smithsonian to consider “on a case-by-case basis” whether a proposed project competes with its new television venture or not. A Showtime executive, Tom Hayden, said the deal was not intended to be exclusionary but was intended to provide filmmakers with an attractive platform for their work.

One well-known filmmaker, Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, said she had been told recently by a Smithsonian staff member that her last film, “Tupperware!,” a history of the creation and marketing of the venerable food-storage containers, would have fallen under the arrangement, because much of the history of Tupperware is housed at the Smithsonian. The documentary, which won a Peabody Award in 2004, was broadcast on “American Experience,” the PBS show produced by WGBH, the Boston public television station.

“This is a public archive,” Ms. Kahn-Leavitt said. “This should not be offered on an exclusive basis to anyone, and it’s not good enough that they can decide on a case-by-case basis what they will and won’t approve.”

The folks at WGBH which produce American Experience and Nova, which both rely on access to Smithsonian archives pretty heavily, are worried that this will be a major problem for them in the future. It’s bad enough that corporate interests have managed to lock copyrights into an ever-increasing length of time, but now they’re finding ways to limit access to what’s in the Public Domain as well.

Link via Boing Boing.

3 thoughts on ““America’s Attic” sells out to Showtime Networks.

  1. Maybe I’m being dense here, but once something is in the public domain, not even god herself can “reclassify” it was my understanding. Particually given America has no legal recourse for d-notices (emergency classification orders on security grounds that the thing should not be seen which can be issued in UK). How can it be taken out of the public domain.

    My understanding was that the public domain was where something passed into the public domain, or was offered up into the public domain and then became the property of everyone.

    Also if someone has a copy of the smithsonian (unlikely I know) surely if it is drawn from a time prior to the classification… then the showtime has no right to it?

  2. Gemma writes…

    Maybe I’m being dense here, but once something is in the public domain, not even god herself can “reclassify

  3. So would this only cover the material if it was drawn from the archive after the date decided or all material covered in the archive is the property of the smithsonian? (could be interesting if any bbc archive footage ended up in there smile )

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