Unique collection of old TV culture put at risk by a heavy-handed copyright takedown system

Although copyright is mainly thought of as concerning books, music and films, it applies to other kinds of creativity in a fixed form. That includes apparently trivial material such as early commercial television programmes. These are important cultural artefacts, but unlike books, music or films, there are very few formal schemes for collecting and conserving them. This has led to members of the public undertaking the preservation of TV programmes on an ad hoc, unofficial basis. It’s great that they are doing so, but the informal nature of their collections means that they are exposed to serious threats from copyright, as the recent experience of The Museum of Classic Chicago Television makes clear. The Museum explains why it exists:

The Museum of Classic Chicago Television (FuzzyMemoriesTV) is constantly searching out vintage material on old videotapes saved in basements or attics, or sold at flea markets, garage sales, estate sales and everywhere in between. Some of it would be completely lost to history if it were not for our efforts. The local TV stations have, for the most part, regrettably done a poor job at preserving their history. Tapes were very expensive 25-30 years ago and there also was a lack of vision on the importance of preserving this material back then. If the material does not exist on a studio master tape, what is to be done? Do we simply disregard the thousands of off-air recordings that still exist holding precious “lost” material? We believe this would be a tragic mistake.

Dozens of TV professionals and private individuals have donated to the museum their personal copies of old TV programmes made in the 1970s and 1980s, many of which include rare and otherwise unavailable TV advertisements that were shown as part of the broadcasts. In addition to the main Museum of Classic Chicago Television site, there is also a YouTube channel with videos. However, as TorrentFreak recounts, the entire channel was under threat because of copyright takedown requests:

In a series of emails starting Friday and continuing over the weekend, [the museum’s president and lead curator] Klein began by explaining his team’s predicament, one that TorrentFreak has heard time and again over the past few years. Acting on behalf of a copyright owner, in this case Sony, India-based anti-piracy company Markscan hit the MCCTv channel with a flurry of copyright claims. If these cannot be resolved, the entire project may disappear.

One issue is that Klein was unable to contact Markscan to resolve the problem directly. He is quoted by TorrentFreak as saying: “I just need to reach a live human being to try to resolve this without copyright strikes. I am willing to remove the material manually to get the strikes reversed.”

Once the copyright enforcement machine is engaged, it can be hard to stop. As Walled Culture the book (free digital versions available) recounts, there are effectively no penalties for unreasonable or even outright false claims. The playing field is tipped entirely in the favour of the copyright world, and anyone that is targeted using one of the takedown mechanisms is unlikely to be able to do much to contest them, unless they have good lawyers and deep pockets. Fortunately, in this case, an Ars Technica article on the issue reported that:

Sony’s copyright office emailed Klein after this article was published, saying it would “inform MarkScan to request retractions for the notices issued in response to the 27 full-length episode postings of Bewitched” in exchange for “assurances from you that you or the Fuzzy Memories TV Channel will not post or re-post any infringing versions from Bewitched or other content owned or distributed by SPE [Sony Pictures Entertainment] companies.”

That “concession” by Sony highlights the main problem here: the fact that a group of public-spirited individuals trying to preserve unique digital artefacts must live with the constant threat of copyright companies taking action against them. Moreover, there is also the likelihood that some of their holdings will have to be deleted as a result of those legal threats, despite the material’s possible cultural value or the fact that it is the only surviving copy. No one wins in this situation, but the purity of copyright must be preserved at all costs, it seems.

Featured image by YouTube.

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