In 2005, Michael Dale and Abram Stern, a pair of grad students in digital media arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz, decided it would be fun to make video remixes of speeches in the U.S. Congress. Their goals were artistic; Stern had notions, for example, of editing a Senate floor speech to remove everything but the pronouns. They would be following, loosely, in a tradition of video commentary that includes remixing speeches from the 2004 Republican National Convention to feature only the many utterances of terrorism or September the 11th by George and Laura Bush, Dick Cheney, Rudy Giuliani, and others. Aware that congressional proceedings are public–and that C-SPAN airs them freely–the pair went online to hunt for the raw material. But “the footage wasn’t there,” Dale recalls. While C-SPAN did offer archival material for a fee, he says, “if we wanted to pull together a few different clips of senators saying different things–there was no online repository for download.”
So they bought a computer and several hard drives, which they hooked up to a television, and started unabashedly copying C-SPAN’s congressional coverage. Then, in March 2006, they went live with a website called Metavid.org, hosted by the University of California, which offered the purloined legislative footage free for the downloading. Before long, C-SPAN–a nonprofit company created by the cable industry–claimed that the university was violating its copyright. When university lawyers learned that only the videos of committee hearings had been shot by C-SPAN’s cameras (proceedings on the floor of the House and Senate were recorded by government cameras), a compromise was reached: floor footage could stay up (with the C-SPAN trademark removed), but the committee footage had to be taken down. C-SPAN later liberalized its policies to allow free reuse of federal-government coverage–but it excluded commercial use. This is not something Metavid could promise, so the hearings remain unavailable on the site.
As they looked for alternative sources of committee footage, Dale and Stern encountered a thicket of technical problems. It turns out that many (though not all) congressional committees do make their own videos, and some of these committees allow you to play the videos on their websites. But the technologies involved reflect the chaos of competing formats that characterizes Web video today. To pick two examples: the Senate Commerce Committee offers videos in a Flash player but offers no download link. And the House Judiciary Committee still uses RealPlayer, a format that’s now largely obsolete. Any would-be users of these resources would soon run into trouble. Where download links weren’t provided, they’d need special software to copy the video from the government site. Once the videos were in hand, they’d have to buy software to do any necessary format conversions and editing. And finally, they’d have to upload the results. “All of these offerings are difficult to reuse in a video project,” says Dale.