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Free Video! Public Domain Video Should Be Public

Carl Malamud, noted independent archivist and champion of making information from government agencies accessible, is sounding a call (wisely using the robust megaphone that is Boing Boing): public video should be public.

A veteran of many institutions you’ve heard of (MIT Media Lab, Mozilla Foundation, Center for American Progress) Malamud notes that to view public domain video produced by the government, you have two choices: watch only a two minute preview, or buy it from Amazon. So he’s developed a workaround – buying the DVDs from Amazon and, since it’s public domain, ripping the videos and posting them to YouTube.


The YouTube archive has a number of remarkable clips, including the too-perfect-to-not-be-staged report from the Navy above. You can see Nixon’s response about Watergate, a piece about the role of aircraft in World War II, the crash of the Hindenburg, or a CIA short about China’s progress, pre-Mao. I particularly enjoyed these films captured from Germany and Japan during the war; indecipherable spin in the opposite direction.

This latest set of videos bolsters an existing project of Malamud’s Public.Resource.org (which is down, likely because of traffic issues, at the time of writing). The organization was given 500 GB of public video by the United States Government, all of which is likewise available on YouTube, but also downloadable in whole (when the site is working) for use in whatever projects you wish.

It’s a shame Malamud has to work from the outside to provide something of so much value to the American people, and the world. Two weeks from now, Malamud will be testifying before Congress about increasing the ability of the National Archives and Records Administration (which I’ve discussed before) to make the point that the government should be doing this work. (He intends to use the view counts on these videos to make a point about demand, so go watch. I’ll wait.)

It’s particularly frustrating, because the government is not without creativity – in certain domains. Tomorrow, for example, DARPA is hosting a contest, with a $40,000 purse, for the first person to correct submit the GPS coordinates of 10 weather balloons stashed across the country. The utility of this contest is obvious, of course – gauge the ability of the public to provide critical information on short notice. The utility of having our nation’s records be quickly and easily accessible is less overt, but no less important.

Malamud’s work is important and innovative, but should be made redundant by the government without delay. No one would be more pleased if that happened, I suspect, than Carl himself.

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