Democratic Debate on CNN: No word yet on “without restriction”

The first CNN debate came and went. It’s been almost a full day, and still no word about CNN’s promise to release the debate videos “without restriction”.

In early May, CNN announced, with all due bloviation, they would release the video for their 2008 US Presidential debates for free use “without restriction” at the conclusion of each live debate. As a Wikipedian, I naturally wondered whether “without restriction” would mean “with too many restrictions for use on Wikimedia projects”.

LostRemote reports that an “industry source” email clarified that “As previously announced, CNN’s debate coverage will be made available upon the conclusion of the live telecast and may be used without restriction throughout the 2008 election cycle (emphasis added).” It’s an open question whether that qualification is a time limit on freedom or just a reminder that debates in the election cycle may not be released without restriction; if it’s a time limit, then CNN deserves a storm of angry emails.

Naturally, there are already spliced videos and snippets appearing in the political blogosphere, and bloggers and YouTubers can confidently rely on CNN’s vague promise of “without restriction” to know that they won’t be facing copyright lawsuits any time soon. But they would be making and uploading the same videos whether or not CNN allowed it, and they would still be safe under fair use in almost every case.

Unless “without restriction” means we can do something that we couldn’t otherwise do (e.g., store and distribute it perpetually, even commercially), CNN’s celebrated nod toward free culture is just a cheap and meaningless publicity stunt.


My own take on the debates: My favorite part was the responses to the lame question “Gas prices are at record high levels…What would you do to reduce gas prices?” Dodd started off by going through a number of positive things that should be done with energy policy; he didn’t come out and say the straight answer to the question, but it was there between the lines. Then Gravel came right out and said it: the solutions to our energy problems are not going to involve lower gas prices, period. A couple others (Edwards and Richardson in particular) tried to pussyfoot around the issue, implying that investigations of energy company profit-taking would stop rising gas prices, but after Gravel, the tenor of the conversation definitely shifted. The sooner the public discourse moves away from thinking that the solution to energy problems is to lower gas prices, the better.

I really wish someone had taken Kucinich‘s bait on trade issues, for example, to debate the merits of NAFTA. I understand the union argument against NAFTA, but not the fair trade argument; Mexico and Canada aren’t problematic in terms of human rights abuses, so ceteris paribus, it seems like a clear case for the free market. On the related issue of immigration, there was some real conversation and some attempt to parse it in ways that move the public discourse closer to where it ought to be, treating immigration as primarily a moral issue. No one is yet willing to concede the rhetoric of “amnesty” or start from the premise that being born in America shouldn’t entitle one to a better life than someone born in Mexico. But with a path to citizenship in place, we’ll be moving in that direction.

I also liked the role call votes (and the way Clinton and Obama handled the lame ambiguous ones). The roll call was, for example, an effective way to wrap things up after Biden said all that needed to be said about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (“Peter Pace is flat wrong. Lemmee tell ya something. Nobody asked anybody else if they were gay. Brits, French, all our allies have gays serving. Our policy is not a rational policy.”). Biden had a number of blusterous moments that will probably help his poll numbers, but he’s driving the whole Democratic field to the right on military issues (except Gravel, and maybe not Kucinich, but their only purpose in the race is to pull the center of gravity leftward).

Access to Knowledge, academics, and IP

I spent this weekend attending the Access to Knowledge (A2K) conference (see wiki). A2K is a would-be social movement that ties together a number of existing intellectual property-related activism issues, ranging from free/libre open source software and copyleft, to copyright reform and fair use, to (abolishing) software patents, to patented crops and gene patents, to access to patented medicines in the developing world, to digital rights and privacy, to media regulation. I got to spend some time with Wikimedia board member and wiki developer Erik Möller, had a wonderful evening with a few friends, and met some interesting new people. And since I was in town for the weekend, I also got a chance to hear a wonderful talk by bad-ass historian of science Lorraine Daston on Enlightenment “observers” (naturalists, microscopists, and all-purpose obsessives) such as Charles Bonnet, who spent days on end (sleeping only occasionally and reluctantly) observing the every move of a single aphid, from birth to death, and on through several generations of parthenogenetic reproduction . Though their observations were considered a waste by their peers, Bonnet and other dedicated observers were consumed by their passion for observations (often sinking inherited fortunes into their projects); they never considered it work.

What, you ask, does A2K have to do with crazy Enlightenment patricians? After Daston’s talk, I was chatting with one of the authority figures in my department and let slip my own occasionally obsessive pastime. When I mentioned the Wikipedia history of biology article I had been working on (which became a Featured Article over the weekend–hooray!), I got a grumbling reply about peer reviewed publications and my C.V. This was the strongest disapproval this good-natured prof can project. He only perked up when I told him I had been invited to submit an opinion piece about Wikipedia and the history of science to the upcoming inaugural edition of Spontaneous Generations, a new open access history and philosophy of science journal. Now that there is an open access journal in the field, I said, I have somewhere to publish future work without feeling guilty. At this point I was reminded of what I already knew: it’s really tough to get humanists fired up about IP issues, even though these things ought to be high on their lists of social/political/cultural priorities (especially given the dreadful state of academic publishing).

The lawyers of the Yale Law School, on the other hand, are on the forefront of IP activism (hence hosting the A2K event). The conference was a mixed bag of interesting talks, old news, and random acts of scholarship. For the most part, the presenters from organizations I already liked (Wikimedia, Creative Commons, Internet Archive, Electronic Frontier Foundation) or should have already liked (Free Press) had the most interesting things to say, though presentations from Microsoft, Google, and Intel were also worth mentioning .

Erik encouraged me to put together a talk proposal for Wikimania 2007; if I can manage the logitistics, it’s an outside possibility.