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Dogfight over videos of White House pup

Web publishers' battle over clips of Barney, the first pooch, highlights a legally dubious double-standard. Photo: The first pooch

As the holiday season looms, Web publishers led by the Washington Post are battling the White House over, of all things, a video of a dog.

This is no laughing matter. At stake are Webcasting rights to video clips of Barney, the first pooch, and his antics around 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The White House has so far denied requests from online publishers seeking copies of the third annual Barney holiday video, insisting on hosting the video exclusively on its own Web site while at the same time freely granting broadcast rights to TV networks.

That's got some online publishers, including the Post, up in arms over a legally dubious double-standard and potential lost advertising revenue. Last year's Barney video drew 24 million viewers to the White House Web site, a White House spokesman said--about the same number of people who visited political sites in the final month of the presidential race. Now plans for a new video promise to renew the tug-of-war over the taxpayer-funded project.

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Web publishers led by the Washington Post are battling the White House over video clips of the first pooch.

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Online publishers are up in arms over a legally dubious double-standard and potential lost advertising revenue.

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"We haven't discussed the plot of the next Barney Cam, and we haven't discussed distribution," White House spokesman Jimmy Orr told CNET News.com this week. Online distribution will be "addressed" in the planning meetings, he added, but he refused to commit to a truce in the Free Barney wars.

The growling match began last year when the White House's communications office offered TV stations the right to broadcast a pair of videos showing Barney, a playful Scottish terrier, cavorting with President Bush, First Lady Laura Bush and top presidential aides.

But officialdom's Christmas spirit ended there. News organizations were prohibited from hosting last year's popular "Barney Reloaded" flick on their Web sites and instead must link to the files on WhiteHouse.gov, the White House insisted.

That drew a bark from Doug Feaver, executive editor of WashingtonPost.com and outgoing president of the Online News Association, who wrote a letter to White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett.

"The justifications we have been given are that (1) the White House wants to drive 'eyeballs' to the White House site and (2) the White House is concerned that the video might appear 'all over' if it gave it to WashingtonPost.com and other online news sites," Feaver wrote last December. "I think you will agree that neither of these attempted justifications is substantial and neither justifies the White House's discrimination against online news sites."

Feaver never received a response, he said in a telephone interview this week. But because the White House is planning a Barney III sequel in time for next month's holidays, this dogfight is far from over.

Last year's "Barney Reloaded," which the White House modestly describes as a "holiday blockbuster video" that's "rich with drama and humor," features Bush, his chief of staff Andrew Card, and political adviser Karl Rove hamming it up on camera. What passes for a plot goes like this: Barney is charged with decorating the White House for Christmas, and when he decides to play instead, is gently scolded by the grownups.

"I know you've been out here a long time, because you've got snow everywhere," the president says in one scene. "You've got snow here on your leg--I mean, you need to be working and all you want to do is play ball, is all you want to do."

Orr said the highly anticipated but still-untitled sequel to "Barney Reloaded" is still in the planning stages. Complicating the production schedule is the expected arrival in the next few weeks of a new canine star: Miss Beazley. She will succeed Spot, an English springer spaniel who died in February.

One legal twist to the Barney saga is that news sites can probably host the memorable series of videos without the White House's permission. Federal copyright law does not include videos or any other material created by a government employee "of the United States government as part of that person's official duties."

"If this is a work of the federal government, the Copyright Act permits the Washington Post to host it," said Eugene Volokh, who teaches copyright law at the UCLA School of Law. "It doesn't require permission from the White House."

Feaver wouldn't say whether he'll go ahead and mirror the Real Video and Windows Media files this year--a move that could leave him in the doghouse with Barney's handlers. "It's a fair question" is all Feaver would say.