October 20, 2006
Jeff Ubois on Erasing Televised History, Copyright-style
Remember Dan Quayle's attack on fictional character Murphy Brown? Well if you don't, or want to refresh your recollection of the 1992 episode, you'll have to rely on secondary sources, Jeff Ubois reports.
Due in part to the vagaries of copyright and contract, public access to the televised part of our historical record is severely limited. Ubois, while a Berkeley researcher, was able to get almost none of the audiovisual material documenting the Quayle speech, the TV coverage, or Murphy Brown's response. He's just published a paper on the project: "Finding Murphy Brown: How accessible are historic television broadcasts?" with the Journal of Digital Information.
In a Kafkaesque twist, Ubois was almost unable to publish the paper as he wanted because a different journal insisted he needed copyright permissions from the correspondents whose refusal of permission he wanted to document! From his blog:
Posted by Wendy at October 20, 2006 03:58 PM
Copyright restrictions ultimately made it impossible to get the original Dan Quayle speech, or the Murphy Brown episodes in question. In an odd coda to this project, one digital library journal (from which I withdrew this paper) insisted that the correspondence detailing refusals by various organizations to allow access to or use of the Quayle/Brown footage was itself copyrighted, and therefore unsuitable for publication. Those excerpts are included in the current piece. It was disturbing how one effect of copyright law is to chill academic discussions of copyright law.
That's very disturbing. But not exactly new - see the heirs of MLK's suit against CBS News.
But this does indicate a new level of chill.
Put this together with the "Military Commissions Act" and you have a recipe for making America a third rate nation ASAP.
What interested me most about Ubois argument was the fact that he was criticizing the fact that TV research is as inelegant and difficult as all research once was. He describes how he can't get digital copies of TV shows, and therefore would be forced to travel all over the country to view clips. This is precisely what all scholars dealt with until quite recently: you had to visit archives all over the world, and were unlikely to be able to xerox what you found (this is pre-digital cameras) because the manuscripts were too delicate.
So what Ubois is really getting at -- aside from his brilliant points about certain lame interpretations of copyright law -- is the fact that TV archives *could* be more modern than traditional archives but they aren't. What's truly depressing about the answer is that unlike traditional archives, TV archives are so backward due to greed. We have the technology to preserve TV history in an accessible form, but we aren't. If archivists in the nineteenth century could have digitized their ancient manuscripts and put the online, no doubt they would have (and in fact their modern equivalents *are* doing it).
So TV archives are in the pre-history of archiving, while libraries are digitizing their rare book rooms. Being a TV historian is like being a medievalist, essentially. But worse, because your manuscripts will start rotting in 20 years instead of 200.