This is a slippery slope if we do nothing about it. I care about this issue greatly and felt it needed a diary all its own.

It was reported in the New York Times yesterday that filmmakers were outraged by the Smithsonian's move to form an agreement with Showtime Networks that

restricts makers of film and television shows using Smithsonian materials from offering their work to public television or other non-Showtime broadcast outlets.

The bottom line is the Smithsonian is attempting to bridge a funding gap by leasing their archives to Showtime - with an exclusivity clause.

What's at issue:

Showtime will have the right of first-refusal on any non-Showtime documentaries that "rely heavily on Smithsonian collections or staff."

More on the flip...

The Smithsonian's response is that this agreement will only affect a small number of works. According to the NYT article, Jeanny Kim, VP for Media Services for Smithsonian Business Ventures, claims

"It's not our obligation to help independent filmmakers sell their wares to commercial broadcast and cable networks...What it boiled down to is that we don't have the financial resources, the expertise or the production capabilities," she added, to continue to provide extensive access to materials but not reap any financial benefit from the result.

Oh really? That's any interesting way to put it.

Some filmmakers, like Ken Burns are not happy with this arrangement (also via NYT) precisely because this arrangement undermines the mission of the Smithsonian:

"I find this deal terrifying," Mr. Burns said in a telephone interview from San Francisco, where he is filming interviews for a documentary on the history of the national parks. "It feels like the Smithsonian has essentially optioned America's attic to one company, and to have access to that attic, we would have to be signed off with, and perhaps co-opted by, that entity."

Mr. Burns understates the situation but at least makes clear that his films, like Jazz and The Civil War, would have been affected with such an agreement in place because they relied on the archives and curators of the Smithsonian.

Let's take a closer look at the Smithsonian's obligation to the public. From Wikipedia:

The Smithsonian Institution is an educational and research institution and associated museum complex, administered and funded by the government of the United States...[It] was founded for the promotion and dissemination of knowledge by a bequest to the United States by the British scientist James Smithson...[whereby] the Smithson estate would go to the United States of America for creating an "Establishment for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge among men."


The Smithsonian Institution is established as a trust by act of Congress, and it is functionally and legally a body of the federal government. More than two-thirds of the Smithsonian's workforce of some 6,300 persons are employees of the federal government...Federal courts have furthermore concluded that the Smithsonian is part of the United States government within the meaning of such statutes as the Tucker Act and the Federal Tort Claims Act. It is also treated as part of the United States government when defending against copyright infringement claims...

According to the Smithsonian's 2005 Annual Report (PDF), the Smithsonian is about "safeguarding treasures":

The Smithsonian's artifacts often define an era. They carry great historical or emotional significance and become part of our nation's collective memory. We take seriously the obligation to safeguard them. Each generation will see these objects in a different light and interpret them in new ways. That is what keeps history alive.

Really? Selling historical documents to Showtime exclusively, or giving such a corporation the right to deny independent filmmakers use or access to such documents, somehow perpetuates this mission?

According to their financial report, revenue for 2005 is broken down as follows:

60% Federal Appropriations
15% Government Grants & Contracts
14% Contributions & Private Grants
5% Investment Earnings
4% Business Ventures [where this agreement falls under]
2% Other

So, I think we have some say in this little business venture of theirs when it stifles the public access to its materials.

As a filmmaker, teacher, and a former employee of an independent social and political issues documentary distributor, this deal stinks. The historical "re-framing" of material or, worse, denial of public access to any documents or footage that weigh heavily on the presention of "artifacts that define an era" will be at the discretion of a cable network.

For Showtime to decide whether or not I can use material from a public institution in a documentary is utterly absurd! The point of social and political documentary on an independent scale is to not be pressured or influenced by corporate entities. In most cases, these programs critique such entities. The independent documentary is also meant to further educate the public and address issues that need to be debated in the public sphere. The distributor I worked for would not have the financial means to battle Showtime over archival footage. Nor would any independent filmmaker.

Well, you can help do something about it:

CONTACT the Smithsonian's Administration and demand a retraction of the exclusivity clause! Our "American attic" is not meant for the exclusive use of corporations.

Secretary Lawrence M. Small
Smithsonian Information
PO Box 37012
SI Building, Room 153, MRC 010
Washington, DC 20013-7012

Office of Public Affairs: (202) 633-2400

Smithsonian's Board of Regents Contact Info [if there is a more effective means of sending comments to the following individuals, please post them]:

1. John G. Robert, Jr., Chief Justice of the United States
c/o Public Information Officer
Supreme Court of the United States
Washington, DC 20543

2. Richard Cheney, Vice-President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500
Email: vice_president@whitehouse.gov

3. Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS)
[To send email]: http://www.senate.gov/...

United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

WASHINGTON: (202) 224-5054
JACKSON: (601) 965-4459
OXFORD: (662) 236-1018
GULFPORT: (228) 867-9710

4. Senator Bill Frist, MD (R-TN)
[To send email]: http://frist.senate.gov/...

United States Senate
509 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
(202) 224-3344
(202) 228-1264 (fax)

Office of Senator Bill Frist
28 White Bridge Road, Suite 211
Nashville, TN 37205
(615) 352-9411
(615) 352-9985 (fax)

5. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
Email: senator_leahy@leahy.senate.gov

United States Senate
433 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
(202) 24-4242

199 Main Street, 4th Floor
Burlington, VT 05401
(802) 863-2525
(800) 642-3193 (for Vermonters)

PO Box 933
87 State Street, Room 338
Montpelier, VT 05602
(802) 229-0569

6. Representative Xavier Becerra (D-CA)
[To send email]: http://becerra.house.gov/...

United States Congress
1119 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
(202) 225-6235

1910 Sunset Boulevard, Suite 560
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(213) 483-1425

7. Representative Sam Johnson (R-TX)
[To send email]: http://www.house.gov/...

United States Congress
1211 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
(202) 225-4201

2929 North Central Expressway, Suite 240
Richardson, TX 75080
(972) 470-0892
(972) 470-9937 (fax)

8. Representative Ralph Regula (D-OH)
[To send email]: http://wwwc.house.gov/...

Washington, DC
2306 Rayburn HOB
Washington DC 20515
(202) 225-3876
(202) 225-3059 (fax)

4150 Belden Village St NW, Suite 408
Canton, OH 44718-2553
(330) 489-4414
(800) 826-9015 (OH only)
(330) 489-4448 (fax)

124 West Washington St., Suite 1A
Medina, OH 44256
(330) 722-3793
(330) 723-1319 (fax)

Update [2006-4-1 16:50:30 by juniper]: Be sure to express your opinions to Showtime Networks as well: 1633 Broadway New York, NY 10019 (212) 708-1600 (212) 708-1217 (fax)

Related Articles:

Washington Post: Admission Fee Idea Floated for Smithsonian
Forbes: Showtime Networks and The Smithsonian Institution Announce a Joint Venture to Create a New On Demand Service

Originally posted to juniper on Sat Apr 01, 2006 at 01:24 PM PST.


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