A call for broad distribution of presidential debate video

Letters to Republican and Democratic leaders encourage them to let video from 2008 debates legally wind up on sites like YouTube.

In this day and age, it's no longer sufficient to just watch a presidential debate on television.

You should also be able to upload it, YouTube it, share it, splice it, and 'remix' it online.

That's the argument put forth by copyright-reform advocate and Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, who sent a letter Wednesday asking the chairs of the Democratic and Republican National Committees to ensure that video from the 2008 presidential debates can be uploaded, distributed and edited by anyone online.

In letters to Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Republican National Committee co-chairs Mike Duncan and Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, Lessig encouraged them to "help usher in the next stage of the Internet revolution" by placing the debate video content in the public domain or under a Creative Commons license, "so that after the debate, the video will be free for anyone to access, edit, and share with others with proper attribution."

"The initial reaction, from everyone who has responded, is very good," Lessig said in an interview. "It's a precedent about encouraging citizen-generated content."

"It's a precedent about encouraging citizen-generated content."
--Lawrence Lessig, copyright-reform advocate

Lessig, who posted copies of both letters on his blog, is the CEO of the nonprofit Creative Commons, an organization promoting alternatives to traditional copyright standards in order to ensure free use with attribution.

In its current form, the ownership rights of content from presidential debates would belong to the networks that broadcast them--and in the wake of a number of high-profile copyright lawsuits pertaining to online video, Lessig's letters are urging the national party committees to take steps that will assure that doesn't happen with the debates. Representatives from Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC--the cable news channels that will be nationally syndicating many of the debates--were not immediately available for comment.

There are several varieties of Creative Commons licenses, which allow the owners to opt into reserving fewer rights than they would under the usual copyright law. They can choose to require people and organizations using their works to provide adequate attribution, use the works for noncommercial purposes only, or request permission to create derivative works (like a remix of a song, or inclusion in a documentary). So far, major broadcast and cable networks have not used Creative Commons licensing.

The letters were signed by 75 people from across the political spectrum, some of whom opted to sign either the DNC or RNC missive, and some who put their names to both. Among the letter signers were some big names in new-media politics; the DNC letter was signed, among others, by Markos Moulitsas, founder of liberal blog Daily Kos; Lowell Feld, the Virginia-based strategist who coordinated online campaign activities for Jim Webb's successful 2006 senatorial campaign; and John Amato, founder of the news site Crooks and Liars.

Many of the signatures from the left side of the blogosphere were gathered by

"Four years ago, there might have been exclusive deals where big TV networks retained exclusive control of the video rights," said Adam Green, a spokesman for MoveOn Civic Action. According to Green, Web video has completely changed the landscape for political debates. "In 2008, this will really be a year of YouTube, where the little guy can hold politicians accountable for their words, and that's why we need presidential debate content to be in the public domain or Creative Commons, and not captive to the whims of big media companies."

Not a partisan issue

Green's rhetoric was certainly spiced with the anticorporate, grassroots flavor that made MoveOn one of the most famous--or infamous, depending on your political leanings--names in the 2004 presidential election. But those involved with Lessig's letters were quick to insist that it was a thoroughly bipartisan effort.

"Empowering voters to share debate coverage on YouTube clearly should not be an ideological issue," said Green. "It's simply an issue of inclusive democracy." Indeed, "democratizing" the debate process with online video has been a hot topic recently. Earlier this week, a number of online media companies including Yahoo, Slate, and HuffingtonPost.com announced plans to host two presidential debates that would be exclusively online. Social networking site MySpace, too, has launched a video-heavy "Impact" channel and will be holding a mock presidential election later this year. Most of these new-media political endeavors, like Lessig's letter, tout a bipartisan image.

"I think this is an issue that there's a strong consensus on, and it's very important to get it very clear upfront," Lessig said, emphasizing that bipartisan efforts will grow more and more difficult as the election draws closer. "As we get further into the campaign, the interests obviously get more complicated."

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