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National Archives Partners With CreateSpace and Amazon to Digitize Movies
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Posted On August 6, 2007


The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA; www.nara.gov), the federal government’s official archivist, has entered into an agreement with CreateSpace (www.createspace.com), an Amazon.com subsidiary, to digitize the motion pictures in its collection. (As we went to press, CustomFlix Labs, the company name appearing in the announcement, changed its name to CreateSpace.) CreateSpace will digitize movies chosen from NARA’s collection of more than 200,000 motion picture titles, most of them public domain. Amazon.com will then make the DVDs available in a DVD-on-demand service ($19.99). NARA will receive copies for preservation purposes. The first movies chosen for the program are Universal Newsreels covering from 1929 to 1967. The public domain status of the content raises some very provocative copyright issues.

NARA’s massive collection of titles includes documentaries, instructional films, combat footage, research and development films, and other formats. Allen Weinstein, archivist of the U.S., saluted the new program as promising to "reap major benefits for the public-at-large and for the National Archives. While the public can come to our College Park, MD research room to view films and even copy them at no charge, this new program will make our holdings much more accessible to millions of people who cannot travel to the Washington, DC area." According to James Hastings, director of access programs at NARA, CreateSpace will be sent videotape copies available at NARA, digitize them, add metadata, and return two DVD copies, one corresponding to the standard format for the DVDs available through Amazon and the other in the higher resolution DigiBeta format.

Though NARA does receive a royalty for sales of its content, Hastings indicated that the royalty would be "initially offset to the costs of ingesting the films into their system. We may get some income, but that’s less important than the preservation and access. The public is getting terrific access for $20." Basically Amazon/CreateSpace is paying for digitization that would otherwise cost the public millions, according to Hastings. NARA’s not the only one paying for costs, however. According to Hastings, NARA is not sending any original reels out: "We never send those out of our custody." Instead, it is sending duplicate copies of content already on digital tape. If CreateSpace wants something not already taped, it has to pay to have a copy created.

CreateSpace is a doing-business-as name for On-Demand Publishing, LLC. Founded in 2002, Amazon acquired it in 2005. The name change reflects an expanded mission for providing on-demand, self-publishing offerings to independent content creators. According to Darren Giles, co-founder and chief technology officer at CreateSpace, "When we were founded 5 years ago, CustomFlix was very customized as a video-based process. Now we do audio CD programs, books with print-on-demand publishing. The CreateSpace brand is aimed at the community of independents (musicians, authors, performers, etc.) using similar technologies but different applications." A Future-Proof Archive service will find a way to "store equivalents to the original format able to adapt to new standards. For a large collection, this has real value. Looking towards a hundred years from now, we can repurpose content every few decades." NARA’s content will enter the Future-Proof centralized archive. Giles indicated the next format challenge they looked forward to was high-definition (HD) DVDs. At present, they are handling both the HD and Blu-ray formats, according to Giles. In time, they may offer this option to NARA, but Giles indicated it was too early at this point. Even audio content, of which Hastings said NARA has a marvelous collection, may come into the program if it succeeds.

CreateSpace also supports Amazon.com’s Unbox digital download service that eliminates the need for physical production and delivery of a DVD. Stacey Hurwitz, marketing director for CreativeSpace, indicated that NARA had chosen to restrict its options to a DVD for now. CreateSpace also offers a Create Your Own DVD (CYOD) program that lets users assemble their own collections of short films and clips, like the CD offerings for old classic radio shows or a commercial YouTube. The George Lucas Educational Foundation is already using this service for creating curricular packages with lesson plans. NARA’s content would seem a logical candidate.

The first collection tapped for the program is the Universal Newsreels. For those hampered by youth and unconnected to the History Channel, a newsreel was a short film, around 7–10 minutes in length, containing six or seven stories covering the news of the day and shown between feature films in movie theaters as well as in some newsreel-only theaters. The Universal Newsreels came out twice a week and covered politics, technology, historic events, sports, entertainment, etc. In 1976, Universal Studios donated the collection to the American people, transferring both the physical reels and the copyright to NARA. Many stock footage houses, such as Footage Farm USA, have issued different versions, including DVDs, of the Universal Newsreels, based on items requested and received from NARA’s collection. (For an interesting history of the preservation—and lack of preservation—of the Universal Newsreels, check out www.footagefarm.co.uk/Footage%20Farm%20website/Information/Universal%20Newsreel.htm.) It indicates that the entire surviving collection represents around 400 hours of edited stories and 800 more hours of outtakes (ending in 1959). If you would like to download some sample Universal Newsreels, the Internet Archive has a collection of 601 items available for free (www.archive.org/details/universal_newsreels).

Neither NARA nor CreateSpace would indicate what they expected to add to the program after the Universal Newsreels. Hurwitz told us it was a "collaborative effort. We’re both going back and forth and looking at lists and titles. We want items that met minimum requirements, for example, 20 minutes or more in length." Hurwitz expected that the operation would handle "around 200 new titles a month when we get up to our run rate."

Public sector and private sector partnerships involving public domain content have not gone without controversy. The current program with Amazon and CreateSpace has already led to some rumblings. Ben Vershbow at the Institute for the Future of the Book expressed concern: "No doubt NARA should [be] doing everything in its power to digitize and increase access to its vaults, but locking materials down through commercial partnerships is no way to run a public trust." Actually, the announcement by NARA made it clear that the deal was nonexclusive. As with a previous agreement for digitizing photographs with Footnote.com, NARA can use the digitized files it receives internally and to help customers at its facilities but should delay making content available free on its own Web site for 5 years. Rick Prelinger, board president at the Internet Archive who is experienced in running his own stock footage archive, commented on this restraint in the context of the Universal Newsreels, "I’m an extreme advocate of access, but delay seems legitimate."

NARA has other partnerships under way, including a pilot project with Google that initially loaded 101 films, including some Universal Newsreels (http://video.google.com/nara.html), all available for free. The impact on Google’s usage may have been minuscule, but NARA had its eyes opened. According to Hastings, for the entire year prior to the Google program, it had received 200 requests for the movies; in the first month the films went online, it had 200,000 hits. "It’s an indicator," said Hastings, "of the broadening of access from having materials online." Prelinger commented on his own experience. When he loaded a collection of digitized footage and made it available for free on the Internet Archive, his sales jumped 110 percent. Prelinger thought that the NARA/CreateSpace/Amazon partnership would "do real well. It’s funny how the coexistence works between free and fee."

However, this particular collection of content could test the limits of that coexistence, particularly as technological advances like broadband and the presence of DVD burners in every computer meet public domain content. Hastings indicated that NARA had three categories for its material when it came to public domain issues. "The first is for those completely government created with no underlying copyright material or where the copyright was given to us. The second is where there might be some underlying copyright issues, e.g., performances by professional performers in Army training films, and where users might need to ask for permission before they could use it commercially. The third is where we know it’s copyrighted. Generally, the vast majority of our content has no copyright."

Though both Hastings and Giles quickly proclaimed their lack of law degrees, both confirmed that the NARA material on DVD disks made by CreateSpace and sold by Amazon would retain their public domain status. I posed two situations to both of them. One, Joe Blow buys a DVD of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, a battle where his great uncle fought. Once he gets the DVD, he makes copies and sends them to all the family. Two, a bitter stock footage publisher resents Amazon cutting into his DVD business by selling for under $20 what he’s been selling for $50. So he decides to invest in the purchase of a set of DVDs from Amazon, wind up his DVD burner, and start advertising and delivering the same content on his own DVDs for $10 a pop.

Neither executive asserted that anything illegal or stoppable would occur in either scenario. Provocative, right?


Barbara Quint is contributing editor for NewsBreaks, senior editor of Online Searcher, and a columnist for Information Today.

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