Internet Slash-Ups: Even the pros rip off C-SPAN

Broadcast | Familiarity

Last week I wrote about the recently resurfaced 1994 Dick Cheney video clip, and compared it to a video from the same year of George W. Bush in a Texas debate (see “Tales of the Tapes”). For the newsworthiness of these videos, both took a rather long path towards widespread viewing. In that long path, the provenance of both video clips had been regularly obscured along the way. The uploader of the Cheney video had deliberately blacked out C-SPAN's logo. Only after hundreds of thousands of views did he belatedly acknowledge in the description on YouTube that a C-SPAN3 broadcast on August 9th was the source of the video. That's not unheard-of behavior for an anonymous Internet provocateur (though his previous 35 uploaded clips had not touched the C-SPAN logo). What is strange is that the professional media and advocacy organizations which showed the video in the subsequent week had, with the exception of one, continued the error of having the original network's logo blacked out.

C-SPAN is seen as a public resource by many, as it is a nonprofit corporation funded through cable fees in the U.S. YouTube has been grasped as an instant public resource as well; it's hard to believe, but before it came along in 2005, the tendency of news video to stick around online past the original broadcast was up to the whim of the broadcast network. In the name of public discourse it was seen as a convenient marriage to get C-SPAN onto YouTube, and that led many people to suppose they could upload C-SPAN videos indiscriminately.

C-SPAN recognized the phenomenon, and announced a new copyright policy this past March: they acknowledged that the video of Congress and other official events is in the public domain and could be used without restriction. As official government events do not fill up twenty-four hours a day, C-SPAN fills the rest of its programming with public talks, campaign events, and interviews. Fortunately for the viewing public, this programming is unconstrained by the bounds of commercial television, and away from the “gotcha” atmosphere of the Sunday talk shows; hence the very disarming interview with private citizen Cheney (he had, for the record, said the same thing in radio and print interviews while Secretary of Defence). But it's precisely this programming, the policy asserts, that cannot be copied for unlicensed commercial use; it may only be copied under “fair use.”

How should one understand fair use in this case? The U.S. Copyright Office offers rough legal guidelines regarding fair use: it stresses (in following the courts) educational/journalistic uses of copies, while saying nothing about attribution. Nonetheless, it seems like a steady moral guideline to always reference the original producer of the work. Creative Commons, which has emerged as a flexible alternative to copyright, considers attribution as fundamental to all six of their six main combinations of licenses. [In this article, as with anything on, each embedded graphic is sourced.]

So it seems to follow that attribution should be the norm. But it isn't. How this state of ethics came to be is not entirely clear, though copyright in general has taken a rhetorical beating on the Internet. It's possible that the new “mashup” Internet, where information is brought from outside sources to produce something is novel, sometimes slumps into a “slashup” Internet where the cut & pasting is done without respect to the original producer. It's also possibly figured that if the viewer really wants to find the original source, they can well do a search on their own. It just takes time. I've done so here.

To review, here's the clip as YouTube showed it on Sunday, August 12th:

This did not go unnoticed.

On Monday, CNN's Situation Room aired a 5-minute segment title “Cheney vs. Cheney.” Guest host John King introduced the clip as “a 13-year old video now surfacing on YouTube.” As per the show's convention, the video was shown as an Internet user would see it in the web browser, and not full-screen. After the video played, reporter Abbi Tatton explained that it was “from C-SPAN. The complete 1994 interview has aired on C-SPAN several times in the last month.” Tatton also identified the website grandtheftcountry (leaving viewers to search for it if they so chose). CNN asked Fresh for comment, and he sent an email response. Here's how it looked: (CNN online uses the high-definition aspect ratio, which explains the wider display.)

Ironically (or predictably?), some viewers uploaded the video of CNN back on to YouTube (one was removed; another remains); one such clip was included in the blog area of the KXNet, the online presence of the CBS affiliates of western North Dakota. It appeared that another news organization is sanctioning the ripping off of a CNN, which itself hadn't done the due diligence to retrieve the source video in the first place. On closer inspection, the blog post is syndicated from the partisan Say Anything Blog. This is the mashup/slashup Internet: it takes a patient eye to pick out exactly just where the line dividing a news organization, a reader contributor, and source content actually is. Here's the window for KXNet, with the blog post exploded, and the pointers to SayAnything highlighted in yellow.

On Wednesday morning, uploaded their own copy to YouTube. The advocacy then sent an email to its 3.2 million members, which directed them to a page with the video clip and a donation form. The email read: “This weekend, we came across a pretty remarkable snippet of video online.” Neither the email nor the online video credited either GrandTheftCountry or C-SPAN. All YouTube clips embedded on 3rd-party sites clearly show the "YouTube" logo in the corner– precisely where the network's logo normally is. Here is the picture of the MoveOn front page:

On Wednesday night, Jon Stewart, in his comedy-news program, The Daily Show on Comedy Central, used the Cheney clip in a segment. He excerpted a few segments and interspersed it with his own commentary. As a ruse, Stewart coyly “disguised” Cheney by putting a black bar over his eyes at the start. The clip also covered over the rest of the identifying C-SPAN graphics. Being a comic production, The Daily Show they should enjoy some latitude in how it edits news video, but given how academics have been praising its news quality, they shouldn't be immune from at the very minimum providing credit.

On Friday August 17th, Chris Matthews aired the clip in its entired on MSNBC's Hardball calling it a “new YouTube golden oldie.” MSNBC used the video posted by MoveOn, and did not credit C-SPAN.

[Also on Friday night, Keith Olbermann on his show Countdown had cited C-SPAN as the source. twice.]

Another trend is consistent through these broadcasts. Consider that the notion of attribution is, in the words of C-SPAN copyright policy, little more than this: “Keeping a 'C-SPAN' logo on the screen during the use is sufficient to identify C-SPAN as the source.” The copyright lawyers haven't given thought to the powerful effect of branding. What happens here is that a video, originally produced at C-SPAN, is now re-branded as a “YouTube video.” YouTube is not the owner de jure, but it has become the de facto owner, since an Internet user will more likely find the video there than on the C-SPAN site. That's unfortunate for C-SPAN, since it diminishes the power of their brand.

Still, the ethics of the whole system is troubling. It is most certainly the policy of major media organizations to not only follow the law, but to respect each other's contributions. And the people who – the video producers at the low rung of the of totem pole – should recognize the reciprocity of this arrangement. Snubbing C-SPAN doesn't do anybody any favors.

The question goes back to what we asked in last week's piece. Why aren't their easier ways to search video news archives? See the next piece: there are some answers, but many questions remain.

Update, 8pm: I didn't even know this existed till I checked this evening: the original video, with the original C-SPAN3 logo  (or "bug" in broadcast jargon) of the rebroadcast.

Update, August 22nd: Thanks to Treveo — which may be the answer one of the questions I've been having —  I'm able to search all of the found footage. None of the clips show C-SPAN; some show "YouTube" as the channel.