Carl Malamud to Brian Lamb: “You should not treat the U.S. Congress like Disney would treat Mickey Mouse”

When I posted a video clip of Hillary Clinton’s talk at the Keene High School, which I’d TiVo’d from our community access cable station, I wasn’t entirely sure it was OK to do that. But when I asked Lee Perkins who runs Cheshire TV he said absolutely, go for it.

The following week I was puzzled by a New York Times primer on which C-Span videos can, or cannot, be excerpted and reposted. Apparently only the “5 to 15 percent” of C-Span’s programming that’s from the House and Senate floor is considered to be in the public domain. Here was C-Span VP and general counsel Bruce Collins’ explanation:

What I think a lot of people don’t understand — C-Span is a business, just like CNN is,” Mr. Collins said. “If we don’t have a revenue stream, we wouldn’t have six crews ready to cover Congressional hearings.

I wondered about that, but lacked context. Now Carl Malamud has provided the missing context. In a stunning letter to C-Span’s president and CEO Brian Lamb, which includes the above quote, Malamud points out that C-Span is supported not only by its revenues operating as a nonprofit business, but also by “considerable public largesse.” Taxpayers, Malamud argues, are footing the bill for much of the facilities, wiring, and equipment that enable C-Span’s camera crews to do their work.

Malamud concludes:

I thus write to you today with a specific request and a notice:

  1. Your inventory shows 6,251 videos of congressional hearings for sale in the C-SPAN store at an average price of $169.50, for a total retail value of approximately $1,059,544. I am offering today to purchase this collection of discs from you for the purpose of ripping and posting on the Internet in a nonproprietary format for reuse by anybody. I understand your store would take a while to process such an order and am willing to place it in stages.
  2. I have purchased Disc 192720-1 from the C-SPAN store, ripped more than one minute of video from the disc, and used it for the creation of a news and satirical commentary of compelling public interest and then posted the resulting work at the Internet Archive. I did not ask C-SPAN for a license and I assert fair use of this material.

Mr. Lamb, C-SPAN has been a pioneer in promoting a more open government. You
created a grand bargain with the Cable Industry and the U.S. Congress. When I
created the first radio station on the Internet and was asked why I did so as a non-profit instead of going for the gold like many of my colleagues, my reply has always been that I was inspired by your example.

Your grand bargain has served the American people and the C-SPAN organization well. Holding congressional hearings hostage is not in keeping with your charter, and it is not in keeping with the spirit of that grand bargain you made with the American people. Please re-release this material back into the public domain where it came from so that it will continue to make our public civic life richer.

Wow.

10 Comments

  1. Wow indeed! Great stuff!

    I’d sure like to see how C-Span is actually set up, who runs it, and where their funds come from. If they are a 501(c)(3), they should have anb IRS 990 on file for each year.

    Interesting…

  2. Great catch!

    I’ve long been a fan of C-span and when I first got cable I soon found that I was watching it a large percentage of the time. I learned a lot of things about how our government works that were not covered in my high school civics classes, and now I find they don’t even teach civics any more! I tell everyone I talk to not to let another election go by without watching a few hundred hours of C-span (unfortunately almost nobody takes this advice).

    In protest to the shoddy workmanship of most cable content I canceled my service several years ago and find myself much more informed about the world than I was as a couch potato, but part of the reason for this is that I still watch and read C-Span on the Internet. I constantly worry that they will start requiring some proof that I have cable service in order to get to their programs, which are in fact partially funded by those same cable monopolies.

    I am of the opinion that all of the coverage of government should be in the public domain, and if the taxpayers have to foot the bill to make it so, then fine. Let C-Span broadcast those materials for the cable community and turn the digitized versions over to archive.org, Google, or anyone else willing to host them. I have no problem with C-Span selling the DVDs, CD, and so forth that they do either, such things are a convenience for many people who are not savvy about downloading, or don’t have fast connections, but for the rest of us there is no reason we should have to ask permission of C-Span or anyone else to make use of public hearings.

    C-Span is at the same time performing a public service and, as your article indicates, possibly serving as a barrier to an even greater public service. One has to wonder if they have not become so set in their ways that they don’t want anyone rocking the boat.

    Let’s rock!

  3. Just playing devil’s advocate – is it not a fair thing to try to get *TV networks* to pay for hearing footage? Maybe keep low-quality internet feeds free, for public consumption…

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  5. It may be time to get C-SPAN out of the equation. NH’s Legislature is making it’s proceeedings public via audio and video: they did it with I think no new appropriation, just a refocussing of time. And they threw the whole thing together in a couple of weeks (State Reps. Jim Splaine and Terri Norelli deserve a lot of credit here).

    It’s not going to win any camerawork awards. But if the choice is really a very basic recording vs. copyrighted multicamera coverage, I think the public interest is clear. Kick C-SPAN out, and pick up a webcam at Staples on your way over to the Capitol. Or if you want, you can borrow my phone. As New Hampshire’s House just proved, it’s not rocket science.

  6. About two weeks ago, one of the two C-Span channels (house of Reps) was simply removed by Comcast. (I live in the Chicago area) When I called Comcast, they told me I could receive that channel again by paying an extra $2/month. What gives???

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