Friday, January 28, 2005

Eyes on the Prize

Last month, published a distressing story charting the disappearance of the civil rights history documentary, "Eyes on the Prize." This important, multi-volume documentary first aired on PBS in the 1980s and has been used in numerous schools and classrooms in the ensuing years as a powerful educational tool. I have distinct memories of watching parts of the documentary and can recall how much the footage in the film humanized and put a face on a history that at times could have seemed distant and remote.

However, the film is increasingly difficult to access, for reasons that are incredibly frustrating. From Katie Dean's Wired article:

The 14-part series highlights key events in black Americans' struggle for equality and is considered an essential resource by educators and historians, but the filmmakers no longer have clearance rights to much of the archival footage used in the documentary. It cannot be rebroadcast on PBS (where it originally aired) or any other channels, and cannot be released on DVD until the rights are cleared again and paid for.
This is not a problem unique to "Eyes on the Prize," but one faced by all sorts of filmmakers, particularly independent and documentary filmmakers. As discussed in a Washington Post article on the controversy:

In November, the Center for Social Media at American University released a report highlighting the problems that documentary filmmakers have as they try to clear rights to images. The report, which recommends finding ways to lower costs for obtaining rights, says current interpretations of copyright law "leads to a creative stranglehold."

"Filmmakers must pay a license to use a pop song that may play in the background [of footage shot] in a pizza parlor, an image or sequence from a movie, or from archival footage owned by someone else," the report says. "They may need to pay not only songwriters but performers, not only movie studios but actors. There is no central place to find out who owns what. There is no rule of thumb for pricing. No one has to agree to license. And it doesn't matter if you didn't intend to quote it. Did somebody sing 'Happy Birthday' in your documentary? Too bad -- you owe Time Warner a small fortune.

In the past month or so the fate of "Eyes" has received increasing attention across the blogosphere and within some activist communities. Currently spearheading action and activism in response to this is Downhill Battle. They're organizing a two-pronged activist response: (1) downloading unauthorized digital copies of the documentary; and (2) organizing screenings of Eyes on the Prize across the country, to be held on February 8 during Black History Month.

As with their previous activism, DB frames their efforts in the language of civil disobedience. This rhetoric is echoed by Lawrence Guyot, former leader of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party (quoted in the WP article):

"I would call upon everyone who has access to 'Eyes on the Prize' to openly violate any and all laws regarding its showing."
Downhill Battle emerged last year in response to the music industry crackdowns against filesharing, and its webpage describes its mission as, "a non-profit organization working to end the major label monopoly and build a better, fairer music industry." Their tactics have ranged from sending lumps of coal to the RIAA and MPAA (in exchange for donations to EFF, iPAC, or Public Knowledge) to stickering projects (distributing warning labels for CDs such as: "Warning: This record label pays radio stations to keep independent labels off the air") to their establishment of a P2P legal defense fund. Most notable was their spearheading of "Grey Tuesday":
DJ Danger Mouse created a remix of Jay-Z's the Black Album and the Beatles White Album, and called it the Grey Album. Jay-Z's record label, Roc-A-Fella, released an a capella version of his Black Album specifically to encourage remixes like this one. But despite praise from music fans and major media outlets like Rolling Stone ("an ingenious hip-hop record that sounds oddly ahead of its time") and the Boston Globe (which called it the "most creatively captivating" album of the year), EMI has sent cease and desist letters demanding that stores destroy their copies of the album and websites remove them from their site. EMI claims copyright control of the Beatles 1968 White Album.

Danger Mouse?s album is one of the most "respectful" and undeniably positive examples of sampling; it honors both the Beatles and Jay-Z. Yet the lawyers and bureaucrats at EMI have shown zero flexibility and not a glimmer of interest in the artistic significance of this work . . .
The Grey Tuesday protest was simply amazing. On February 24, 2004 approximately 170 websites hosted a full copy of the Grey Album, in spite of the fact that many of those sites received a cease and desist letter from EMI's lawyers (read Downhill Battle's response to EMI). Right now, thanks to everyone who participated in this protest, tens of thousands of people in the US and around the world are listening to DJ Danger Mouse's "The Grey Album". Because the attempt to censor this record is one of the most clear-cut examples of what's wrong with current sampling rules, everyone who participated in the Grey Tuesday protest has sent a strong message in support of common-sense changes to copyright law. Grey Tuesday was organized by Downhill Battle, a music activism project . . . .

I'm intrigued and heartened by Downhill Battle's role in the "Eyes on the Prize" activism and their broadening of their efforts beyond the music arena. It will be interesting to see what responses to this action are-- both in terms of activist participation and in terms of legal responses. I'm particularly interested in the way this issue may be connecting seemingly disparate activist and creative groups and this opportunity to broaden the copyfight issue beyond the confines of the music/P2P issue that some mistakenly limit it to. While some may dismiss the latter issue as trivial as the whining of music "thieves," the "Eyes on the Prize" controversy nicely illustrates some of the more fundamental questions at stake.

Much more is at stake in the current struggles over copyright, intellectual property, creativity, and access to a commons than from where and whether we can download popular songs. This isn't to say that I don't think that access to music is itself a signficant issue. But, trends in the mediascape such as the unprecedented extension of copyright, the narrowing of the public domain (e.g., via technical means such as Digital Rights Management (DRM) backed up by legal power such as in the DMCA), and the connected issue of corporate consolidation of media ownership, have the potential to radically transform (and curtail) our abilities as users, creators, and researchers of media, culture, and knowledge in ways that go far beyond the music domain.

UPDATE: Well, one question is answered already: From the downhill battle webpage for their "Eyes on the Screen" action:

We have taken down the torrent links to these videos at the request of lawyers for Blackside, Inc. This sucks!
UPDATE: From Downhill Battle

The teacher who was planning a February 8th screening of Eyes on the Prize in Vienna, VA for students and community members has been forced to cancel after a threat of lawsuit from the "licensee level". . . . (read more)


Blogger George White said...

Very interesting post, thank you.

I did not even realize that this was an issue; I've been worrying about book and music copyright laws myself, ever since I received a cease and desist letter from the lawyers representing JK-Rowling. (Could I make something that ridiculous up?)

5:08 PM  
Blogger Molly Moloney said...

Now, that sounds like a story requiring some elaboration! Do tell more . . .

(By the way, my links/blogroll is currently under (re)construction, but once I get it back up it should have some links to some key sites/blogs focusing on many of these copyright issues.)

5:23 PM  

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