Creative Archive Licence Group

Transcript: Rick Prelinger's speech

Archivist, writer and filmmaker and founder of the Prelinger Archives, Rick Prelinger spoke at the Creative Archive Seminar on 13th April 2005 on the use of open licensing of content to drive business growth. Here’s the transcript of his speech and the question and answer session that followed.

I want to present a very brief and breezy case study of what we’ve done to balance public and commercial rights and how we began to give material away through the Internet Archive. What this is really about is an odyssey from a model of scarcity through a model of plenty. These terms come from Larry Lessig, Stanford Law Professor and Chairman of Creative Commons. It’s a very powerful kind of metaphor. Nobody disagrees with plenty.

Here are a few points about us. We’ve a historical stock footage collection which began in 1983 as a hobby and two years later turned into a business and today has grown to become a very large collection containing 51,000 titles and 30,000 cans of unedited footage. Until recently in the US, the laws about the public domain were much more liberal so we had a great reservoir of public domain material to draw from. We also own about 1,000 copyrighted titles outright. Later Getty handled us and now we’re a "white collar archive" because we have very little film and since 2002 when the Library of Congress acquired us they’ve handled the physical materials; we just do licensing.

Here’s our old model of scarcity: strict, physical control of our material. Nothing went out unless it had timecode on it, unless somebody paid a licence fee. We were very rigid about asking people to report. Tons of VHS cassettes and sometimes films would come to us and we would painstakingly count frames and in the case of compositing or any kind of layering or image manipulation, we would total up with great glee how many of our shots appeared at the same time in a frame so that we could double/triple bill. We were very friendly to people who we thought were doing work that was publicly, artistically or socially important but it was still very occasional. The one thing I’d like to point out is that freebies cost as much to service as a revenue job. It costs just as much to give something away, as it does to licence it for ten thousand dollars.

With the Voyager Company, a pioneer new media publisher, we produced fourteen laserdiscs and CD-ROMs with material from our archives, including Ephemeral Films, the Our Secret Century series and Call It Home: The House That Private Enterprise Built, a laserdisc on the history of suburbia and suburban planning. In a lot of ways these releases paved the way for my thinking about how to give away more content to people.

The influence of the IT world on content distribution
In 1999, I moved to California and called Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive on the telephone and in about three seconds, he said to me, “Do you want to put your archives online for free?”’. This is the kind of question that is very difficult to answer when you’re out walking the dog, if you’ve never thought about it before and you’re operating from a model of scarcity. But in about three months when I’d learned a little bit about what people were doing in the software industry and how there was a functioning gift economy, at least in California, I’d come to agree with him. I saw how it was possible to adapt some of the paradigms of the IT world to the world of content distribution that it came in. So at the beginning of 2001 we made a page with links to 270 films which has now grown so that now there are about 2000 films available online for free viewing, downloading and resuse. It would be more, we just need to get the money to do some more film to tape work. That is the obstacle. It’s not digitising. Digitising is fifteen bucks an hour.

Here’s the characteristics of what we’ve put on-line: all the films are downloadable, shareable and re-usable. I’ve been known to say, “streaming is for sissies”. I don’t mean to insult anybody who identifies as a ‘sissy’, but on the other hand, I really think that downloadable material is the key to sharing content. We digitise everything to MPEG2. It’s 28 megabytes a minute. We have an automatic script that derives these other formats. Each film has a detail page - easily available freeware allows users to turn the files into DV and edit them - and we licence them all under the Creative Commons Public Domain Licence. We used to have special restrictions and Creative Commons let us do it because we were one of the early collaborators. But then I became disenchanted with that. I thought public domain is public domain so now it’s plain vanilla – public domain. There’s no funny business.

Rather than describing what we’re doing as a give away or as an open source – terms which really have specific meanings that don’t quite address this – I’d like to define this as a “two-tier licensing system”. So what’s “free” is a download. What you pay for is a physical copy which is often higher res. You get a Creative Commons Licence at no cost with the download. If you want a specific written agreement with your name on the top which you’re going to need if you’re doing any kind of production that requires an Errors and Omissions Policy, then you have to pay; insurance doesn’t happen for free.

When it’s free you self-indemnify, when you pay, you get representations, warranties, and indemnification as in a customary contract. The free downloadable footage is an automated transaction completed without human intervention. It’s an incredibly efficient way to get content to people and, as such, I think that there’s potential for thinking about that in other ways as well.

Events in our access growth
In 1999 there were 200 stock sales but this was before we ever heard of online distribution, before there were really any movies on-line at all except for Real Player and it’s not surprising therefore that we’ve seen a doubling of stock sales – in 2004 there were 400. We saw very, very little unpaid production usage in 1999. Our estimate for 2004 is 800 uses in production. This could be higher, it could be lower. It’s a very thoughtful guess.

The ten public screening events in 1999 were all done by me but in 2004 only six of about 70 events were. But in 2004 the number of film’s distributed to the public has risen to 800,000 and that’s really the dramatic statistic, a statistic that we’re extremely proud of. Again, this does not count material that’s FTP’d or delivered through BitTorrent or other means so actually the total is higher. The total number of our films distributed online is just about 3 million.

I should point out that these are not Hollywood movies. These are industrial, advertising, educational amateur films. They’re special interest material. In many cases, their interest is chiefly in their evidentiary value, or in the value that they have as material that can be re-contextualised, although a lot of people watch them for entertainment.

Who pays and who doesn’t?
So what’s the profile of our creative customers? No budget independent and social issue mediamakers. The indie media people. Many of the people who entered the Creative Commons movie contest. Relatively low-budget documentarians. Errol Morris paid for footage for The Fog of War. Michael Moore paid for Bowling for Columbine. Adam Curtis paid for The Power of Nightmares.

Mark Achbar who made The Corporation, and Caroline Martel, who made Phantom of the Operator, a beautiful, experimental documentary coming out of Montreal – they don’t pay. Nor do many other video artists and educators who have used this material for, mostly web based, curricula.

I want to talk about communities of interest. One of the things that any new means of distribution, or any genre, needs in order to flourish is a fan community. One of the problems with experimental and avant garde film in the United States is that it has a tiny fan community. It hasn’t found a way to build a group of people who will work very hard to make sure that it gets seen. But we have rail fans, telephone collectors - many other people like that – who are very heavy downloaders and there’s the Stockstock stock footage festival now where everybody gets the same footage and makes a movie. There’s been a lot of these lately.

And finally, to be perfectly honest, there’s also a lot of people who’ve put out these cheap DVD-Rs on eBay. The only blessing is they don’t sell very many. It raises an important point: the way you compete with people who are knocking off your material has to be to try to do something better –better quality, “authorised”, containing proper context. This goes back to primary materials. It’s clear to us that that’s what we have to do to compete with these people. The problem is that we have to do it, we have no choice, it’s no longer a voluntary issue. This isn’t a bad thing, but it tempers the rosy picture in this one area and I’ve got to be frank about that.

Getty Images doesn’t like me to talk specific money figures, but if we earned ‘x’ in the year 2000, in 2004 we earned ‘x’ plus 62 per cent – and this in a period where the price of stock footage has gone down, where there’s been a great deal of competition and where there’s also been a tremendous slump - between 2001 and 2002 a lot of people left the business.

I think that the increase is largely, although not totally, attributable to our high profile because we’ve put material on-line. A tremendous number of people, hundreds a month, go to Getty after they see something on-line for free. Ubiquity equals value. Time Warner’s most often pirated image, the famous picture of the audience watching a 3D film, is also their most lucrative image. The idea here is to let the users of the archive promote the collection by creating things so the free tier promotes the paid tier.

Today’s re-mixer is tomorrow’s licensee. I’m especially interested in this in terms of archival material because a few years ago, the so called “Generation Acts” were a little less interested in historical material. We’re finding that the next cohort doesn’t really care. Historicity isn’t an issue any more. For creators, we’re trying to create value where there was little or none, and the foot soldiers who were actually making stuff are the people that are creating value out of potentially nowhere.

I think that we’ve got to make a social decision and figure out what the licensing threshold is. Somewhere this line exists and a billable event is triggered but where it is we don’t really know and we have to get stakeholders to confer. But ultimately there’s going to have to be some sort of buy-out, some sort of agreement, some sort of collective licensing, or collective bargaining process. If we can figure out where to set that line so that there is almost unlimited use below that line and then above that line we get into a case of money changing hands, that would be a very, very good thing.

What Protection strategies can be put in place?
Physical which worked for analogue, sort of. This means simply that you keep videotapes and digital files out of the hands of anyone who hasn't paid you. Legal is costly and inefficient, and it doesn’t really work against individuals. Digital Rights Management doesn’t work very well. Many of you have probably read Cory Doctorow’s excellent article on the Flaws of Digital Rights Management. If you haven’t, I recommend it. Cory is a science-fiction writer who gives his books away under a Creative Commons license and still does very well. Finally, there’s a notion of a threshold, so that we sell, for example HD format and we give things away that are lower quality.

Time-outs, meaning that you lock up material for a certain period and then after awhile you free it up. And then no protection, or almost none; that’s what we do. But to sum up, I suggest that we don’t have to decide this right now – we can experiment – in fact, we’re all here today to talk about an experiment.

I don’t know very much about moral rights, we don’t have them in the United States. This is what my friend, Howard Besser, says about them: “When I’m in a country with moral rights laws, I’m against them. When I’m someplace where they don’t exist, I’m for them.”. And in some ways it’s hard to disagree with that. Philosophically, my issue with moral rights is that what’s happened is that we have (a situation) where the rights of creators need to be respected. And rather than figuring out a way for this to articulate itself in the real world and with all sorts of different business and production models, we now have the State involved and in Europe, there’s relatively little room for flexibility. But I can’t claim to be an authority on that and you can see a lot more about that on my website.

Thank you. Are there any questions?

Q: Could you tell us a little bit more about the Creative Commons Licence?
A: We’ve attached a Creative Commons Public Domain Licence on our material and it is an irrevocable, irreversible dedication to the public domain. Now most of this was not material that was copyrighted. Where it was copyrighted we’ve dedicating those rights to the public domain. For material that was already public domain, what we are saying is that we certify that’s it is public domain. So, we are, in effect, extending a mass warranty out there but it’s not an indemnification. Creative Commons Licences, I believe, don’t at this point include indemnification.

Q: Can you talk more about the influence free material has had on your sales? Do you ascribe some of the increase to the fact that you are running now, effectively, a freebie operation?
A: When I’ve talked to Getty and when I talk to other people who Getty represents, I can’t find much else to point to this revenue increase other than that their database is better than it used to be, but that wouldn’t be enough to for the 62 per cent increase.

I should also point out that that’s net revenue to us and the way that revenues are calculated in a stock footage business means it’s actually probably more than that, but I’m not privy to how much more. I would say that the increase is overwhelmingly because we are running a freebie operation. Because our profile is raised, we stand high above the moshpit.

Q: Surely there must have been a Getty marketing effect, given the size of that organisation and the money that they spend on marketing?
A: Absolutely. They acquired Archive Films, the company that handled us and gave it a big boost. At the same time people stopped hearing about Prelinger as a brand name. So our free-to-download footage really pulled us out of the shadows, giving the Prelinger collection a boost by making it highly accessible. Anecdotally we know that a tremendous number of people come to us and then go on to Getty afterwards. And Getty actually points people to the Internet Archive now promotionally which is very interesting. They publish that little magazine for creators – you probably get it for free if you’re a producer or an art director - and they have these historical pages and they point to the Internet Archives. So, we’re not actually competing, I think, in their view.

Q: Given the exponential leap forward that’s happened in the last five years have you got any sense of how the development curve might go and where you might be on it? And is there a point that you can see where it becomes unmanageable or do you think that the system is in itself extensible and can keep evolving at that kind of rate?
A: Question of scale. It’s a very good question. If all of the 1900 or so sources for stock footage in the United States put their material up for free use and also developed the sales tier, I don’t think we would stand out to the degree that we do.

The interesting thing is that this is not happening. In the States where we don’t have any public service tradition akin to what you have here we feel very lonely. There’s one other company, SabuCat, that’s in the business of selling stock footage and that has put up downloadable material through the Internet Archive. They licence out Hollywood trailers, beautiful 35 millimetre material. But, otherwise, we’re very, very lonely and people are incredibly resistant. We just see watermark thumbnails on-line.

Q: You said that most of your growth has been delivered by the strategy of making content free on a large scale. Are there any other factors without which your growth wouldn’t have occurred?
A: Interesting question. One of the great things about being represented by Getty Images is that they’re the biggest and you achieve penetration of the market as you would never otherwise. On the other hand, our own brand name has been assimilated into a much larger collection. Getty don’t generally promote the Prelinger name. Getty’s database is much better than it used to be so people can find things more easily but I think our free to download strategy is really the primary factor.


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