Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

2.26.07 Who owns video of Congress? A crack in the C-Span business model

Posted by Richard Koman - February 26, 2007

Is it possible that video of the hearings and floor debates of the US Congress are actually private property? The issue exploded when Nancy Pelosi launched a blog, The Gavel, featuring video of House floor debate.

As The Times reports, Republicans rushed in and accused her of copyright infringement, claiming that Pelosi lifted the videos from C-Span.

Shortly after the news release was distributed by e-mail, C-Span corrected the record to say that House and Senate floor debates are "government works," shot by government-owned cameras, and thus in the public domain. The Republican committee promptly sent out a news release to withdraw the accusation against Pelosi's office.

As it turns out, though, one of Pelosi's videos was C-Span property, shot by C-Span cameras at a House committee hearing where Pelosi testified. Although C-Span carries public domain material from the House and Senate floors, C-Span itself shoots hearings.

"We are structurally burdened, in terms of people's perception, because we are the only network that has such a big chunk of public domain material," said Bruce Collins, the corporate vice president and general counsel of C-Span. He estimated that 5 percent to 15 percent of C-Span's programming is from the House and Senate floor, and thus publicly available.

"It is perfectly understandable to me that people would be confused," he said. "They say, 'When a congressman says something on the floor it is public domain, but he walks down the street to a committee hearing or give a speech and it is not public domain?'"

C-Span had some YouTube gold in May when Stephen Colbert's speech to the White House Correspondents Association garnered 27 million views in two days. But C-Span insisted the video come down. "What I think a lot of people don't understand--C-Span is a business, just like CNN is," Collins said. "If we don't have a revenue stream, we wouldn't have six crews ready to cover Congressional hearings."

The whole business shows some serious cracks in a business model that was predicated on cable TV. If politicians suddenly have online video sites, blogs, webcasts and social networking services to distribute their official and unofficial doings, it's not clear that there's any longer a public benefit to handing over Congressional hearings to a for-profit company. Pelosi's office has its own camera operators and 11 of 21 House committees webcast their hearings.

The result would be transparency, free access to all of Congress' debates, viewable not on C-Span's schedule but on users' with linkable, archived footage that is all in the public domain. Even Pelosi's opponents favor that vision.

"The Republican Study Committee, Republicans in general, would favor more transparency," said the committee's spokesman, Brad Dayspring. "We heard that the committees are moving in that direction--conservatives would support that."

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