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.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
6 min read
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 MoveOn Civic Action, whose executive director, Eli Pariser, was a co-signer.

"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."

Indeed, the letter to the RNC was accompanied by signatures of prominent conservative pundits and bloggers like Michelle Malkin, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, and Mike Krempasky, co-founder of Redstate.com.

"It's a diverse group of folks," Krempasky said. "I think that if some of these people and I were in Congress, we'd vote opposite 95 percent of the time. But we're not, and that's okay." He believes the national parties ought to jump on board because there really isn't anything that can be done to stop the collective power of online political junkies and hordes of YouTubers.

"Let's be honest. There's not a lot you can do to stop video online. You can respond to it, you can hire lawyers to send take-down notices or any foolish thing you want to do, but you can't stop it," Krempasky said. "We've seen this over and over again."

"This is the future. There's no changing that. If you can't stop something, you might as well get in front of it."
--Mike Krempasky, RedState

Both letters were also signed by a number of well-known Internet figures, like Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales; science fiction author and Boing Boing blogger Cory Doctorow; and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, who said he thinks "the networks will do the patriotic thing and make the video available."

But despite his optimism, Newmark expressed doubts that politicians would immediately sign on to such an idea. "I have great faith in the DNC," he said. "The problem with the RNC is that the Republicans there will want to do this, but there are (members of the party) who may not want their people scrutinized."

And that may indeed be the case: A representative from the RNC stated on Wednesday afternoon that the committee is "not going to get involved in this issue." Lessig confirmed to CNET News.com that he had been in talks with the DNC, but no details on the nature of those talks had been provided. DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton later added: "We are already exploring ways to make the DNC-sanctioned debates more accessible and will continue to work on this and other issues in our discussions with the networks."

Like any publicity-friendly political move, the letters were accompanied by a few raised eyebrows. Jim DeLong, a senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation, was concerned about the potential repercussions of presidential debate videos being "remixed" and edited to a point where the meaning could be completely distorted.

"It's far from clear to me that it's a good idea to put this stuff up on YouTube and have anyone able to modify it however they choose," DeLong explained. "You know what's going to happen on both the left and the right. The stuff will be mangled, and everything will be pulled out of context, and it'll be ricocheted around the world."

In DeLong's opinion, it would be possible to make debate video available online without taking such a radical step toward public domain or Creative Commons licensing status. "You really wouldn't have to have them on broadcast TV at all," he said. "(A network) could put on a presidential debate and have it Webcast, and just put it up there on the Internet, and keep it there if (it) wanted."

But others applauded the letter's purpose and welcomed the possibility of free-for-all debate footage. One of them was blogger Jeff Jarvis, who has been tracking the role of online video in the 2008 presidential campaign through the Web site PrezVid.

"I don't think there should be any limitations on this material. This should be considered the property of the American people," Jarvis said. "It's our government, and I think that there should be a condition that anybody who broadcasts this stuff should make it open. It should be, and you know what, even if it's not, we're going to use it."

Mike Krempasky of RedState argued that if the networks and national parties oppose the free use of debate video content, they'll be fighting a losing battle. "This is the future. There's no changing that," he said. "If you can't stop something, you might as well get in front of it."