Congressional hearings update: welcome back, C-Span

As mentioned previously here and here, Congressional committee hearings are the most interesting and usually the most important parts of what the House and Senate do. But until now they have been nearly impossible to observe if you didn't queue up that morning outside the hearing room in Washington, if C-Span didn't choose that particular session to cover, or if you didn't tune into C-Span (or set the TiVo) between 1:45am and 3:20am when the hearing was being shown. All that is about to change.

The main players in this process have been Carl Malamud, who has been forcing the issue; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to whom Malamud recently delivered his "unsolicited report" explaining how webcasts of hearings could be made available in a standardized, searchable, downloadable form; and of course C-Span, which has recently done something very admirable.

C-Span pioneered the idea of unfiltered access to what public figures were doing and saying. But the rise of YouTube and similar video-sharing devices flummoxed it for a while. A year ago, it was swamped with download requests for its broadcast of Stephen Colbert's routine at the White House Correspondents Association dinner. Clips from that appeared all over the internet -- 99.9% of the time, naturally, on sites mocking George Bush. Through last fall's campaigns, more and more candidates used C-Span material to promote themselves or criticize their opponents. After becoming speaker this year Nancy Pelosi used C-Span clips from the Iraq debates on a site showing what the new Democratic majority was up to.

At that point, C-Span did something unwise. It told Pelosi she had to take the clips off her site, because C-Span held copyright on them. This was even though Pelosi arguably "owned" the material as much as anyone did, since she was the head of the organization whose debates C-Span was showing; even though the proceedings themselves were not closed, commercial, or proprietary in any way; and even though the people shown in the clips were public officials, working on taxpayers' time. This unattractive get-tough stance was in keeping with C-Span's previous efforts to keep its material from being used in ways beyond its control and that it considered inconsistent with its own non-partisan approach. (Previous examples here and here.)

"We realized that the previous copyright policy was based in a different era," Rob Kennedy, C-Span's president and co-chief operating officer (with Susan Swain), told me in a Skype call several days ago. He was explaining why, after almost a year's internal debate, C-Span announced last week that it would reverse its policy and make past and future recordings from the Congress and other government organizations widely available for re-use. The only conditions are that the material be credited to C-Span, and that the use be "non-commercial." This last provision caused a momentary flurry, but Kennedy said C-Span was trying merely to keep people from re-selling its footage or "connecting it with a revenue stream in some direct way." He didn't mean to keep it away from blogs with ads -- or, I would assume, for use of clips in political sites that also asked for contributions.

"We realized that there was growing demand for our material as part of public discussions," Kennedy said to me. "If we continued with a restrictive or negative approach, we could not be part of that process -- or remain consistent with our mission of broadening the public service footprint we provide." If the word footprint sounds like jargon, the sentiments and intentions sound exactly right. Kennedy was at some pains to point out C-Span's recognition that it was a special kind of broadcast organization, founded to expand the public's knowledge of its government and engagement with important issues. He said that C-Span was throwing itself into this mission: reducing the prices on the DVDs it sells, which go out without copy protection and can be used on other sites; putting its entire archive on line, in searchable and streaming form; and expanding the new site CapitolHearings.org. Initially this site will allow live streaming feeds from 26 Senate committee hearing rooms. Ultimately, Kennedy said, the hope was to make it a "depository of public domain audio and video from the Capitol." He said that he hoped that such material would be widely re-posted; that other sites would improve systems allowing users to comment on what they have seen; and that in general it would expand democratic discussion.

This is the C-Span we have known for more than 25 years, and the C-Span that we respect and value --while of course occasionally having to mock it for its super-straightness. It is nice to have this real C-Span back.