MSNBC posted a notice on its Web site Wednesday allowing all "non-NBC media and individuals" to use footage from the AFL-CIO Democratic presidential debate in any way we please. The network joins CNN and ABC in adopting this policy, one that copyright reformers -- Stanford's Lawrence Lessig chief among them -- had urged as a way to encourage "citizen-generated political content" online.
Among the major networks hosting primary debates, only Fox News, now, will not let its videos go free online. The network has said that it plans to treat its debate videos just as it does any other network content, i.e., all rights reserved.
As Ars Technica notes, though, there is a question over whether Fox's or any other network's rules can prohibit people from using debate clips in mash-ups or blog reports. In a statement, Ed Black, the CEO of the tech industry trade group the Computer and Communications Industry Association, points out, "regardless of whether debate footage is liberated, the public's rights, pursuant to 'fair use,' already ensured that portions of these debates could be excerpted and commented upon."
Fair use provisions of U.S. copyright are a subject of constant court battle, but they clearly let people copy content "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching ... scholarship, or research."
Thus if you record a Republican primary debate broadcast on Fox and edit it down to show what you believe to be the wisdom of Ron Paul, and then if you distribute your creation over YouTube, the network would likely face an uphill battle shutting you down.
It's puzzling, then, why Fox won't budge. It's hard to see where the networks lose in letting their clips go; from a marketing perspective, it would seem that extensive retransmission of their videos -- especially when edited to make them more palatable -- would only reinforces their branding. (And for what reason do they hold debates other than branding?)
Besides, the TV players should know they're not the only ones in this business. In September, three news Web sites -- Slate, Yahoo and the Huffington Post -- will jointly run a Democratic primary debate.
Slate's David Plotz told me in an e-mail that the debate will not be televised nor streamed live. Rather, video from the proceedings -- in which the PBS host Charlie Rose will ask candidates questions that come from the audience -- will be posted on the Web for people to watch and freely edit.
Given such competition, I don't imagine Fox can stick to its guns for long.