How Accessible are Historic Television Broadcasts?

In Chapter 9 of Free Culture, Lawrence Lessig and Brewster Kahle have a conversation about television archives:

In addition to the Internet Archive, Kahle has been constructing the Television Archive. Television, it turns out, is even more ephemeral than the Internet. While much of twentieth- century culture was constructed through television, only a tiny proportion of that culture is available for anyone to see today. Three hours of news are recorded each evening by Vanderbilt University – thanks to a specific exemption in the copyright law. That content is indexed, and is available to scholars for a very low fee. “But other than that, [television] is almost unavailable,” Kahle told me. “If you were Barbara Walters you could get access to [the archives], but if you are just a graduate student?” As Kahle put it,

“Do you remember when Dan Quayle was interacting with Murphy Brown? Remember that back and forth surreal experience of a politician interacting with a fictional television character? If you were a graduate student wanting to study that, and you wanted to get those original back and forth exchanges between the two, the 60 Minutes episode that came out after it … it would be almost impossible … Those materials are almost unfindable…”

It turns out Brewster was right. I searched for footage of the Quayle/Brown interaction with an eye towards making some general assessments of the accessibility of historic broadcasts, and detailed the results in a paper called Finding Murphy Brown: How Accessible are Historic Television Broadcasts?. It’s finally out this week in the peer reviewed Journal of Digital Information.

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.

4 thoughts on “How Accessible are Historic Television Broadcasts?”

  1. The correspondence is and was copyrighted. Your rights to excerpt it for review and commentary will vary from place to place. The academic journal may need to be reminded of those rights.

    Also, please stop using “accessible” to mean “available,” “published,” or “obtainable.” Even if you had found the video you were looking for, I’d bet you dollars to donuts it wasn’t accessible: Were there captions or audio descriptions or both?

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