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Pat Aufderheide, Professor and Director for Center for Social Media at American University’s School of Communication, forwarded an email about potentially alarming news coming from the Smithsonian. She writes, “The Smithsonian recently announced an exclusive partnership with Showtime Networks to create ‘Smithsonian Networks’ as a joint venture with the Institution’s Smithsonian Business Ventures Unit. This arrangement could stifle the range of independent work on American history and culture that consistently brings new ideas, voices and perspectives to public attention.”


Because, she continues, “The Smithsonian Networks policy would preclude independent filmmakers from creating projects for other media outlets. According to Jeanny Kim, Vice President for Media Services at Smithsonian Business Ventures, filmmakers and researchers who wish to have more than ‘incidental’ access to Smithsonian archives or Smithsonian curators or scientists would have to offer their project to this new business venture. Indeed, this policy appears to prohibit an independent filmmaker from making a documentary and releasing it on the Internet on a noncommercial basis.”

It would also prohibit filmmakers from freely exploring commercial possibilities for any work drawing upon Smithsonian archives.

A growing coalition of filmmakers is sending a letter of concern tomorrow, April 17, to Lawrence Small, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in the hopes of getting the institute to revise its plans and both preserve the “open source” values presently embodied by the instituation as well as the right of filmmakers to allow the free market to define for them the commercial possibilities of their work. A PDF of this letter can be downloaded here, and the doc includes instructions on how to easily send it by email or fax.

From the letter:

We have several concerns about this new venture. First and foremost, the Smithsonian Institution has refused to disclose the details of this agreement. In a letter to members of the Smithsonian Institution, a spokesperson states: “This is a business contract that does not involve federal funds. Such contracts are confidential as they contain proprietary information that no company should have to share publicly.”

The Smithsonian Institution is not merely a business venture. It is a publicly chartered guardian of our national heritage, created by the U.S. Congress “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” In your FY2005 Annual Report, you noted that the Institution receives 75% of its revenue from federal appropriations, government grants, and government contracts. The Institution is governed by a Board of Regents appointed from all three branches of our government. The Smithsonian Institution is a public trust in the truest sense of the term…

While disclosure of the terms of this contract is our first concern, our broader concern is the troubling principle established by the venture of a “right of first refusal.” The prospect of potentially requiring that an independent filmmaker, a video blogger on the Internet, a historian, or educator who makes “non-incidental” use of the collections or needs access to staff first present their project for commercial exploitation by this new business venture is an anticompetitive practice that is extremely troubling. Recent years have witnessed an explosion in the creation of documentary films. Many award-winning films have drawn on our collective heritage as maintained in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. Closing off one of the most important collections of source materials and limiting access to staff will have a chilling effect on creativity, will create disincentives for digitization of the collections for access by all Americans, and violates the mission and purpose of the Smithsonian Institution.

We ask that you take three actions today:
1. Disclose the terms of the contract with Showtime Networks and any other commercial
agreements that limit access or use of the collections.
2. Annul the contract with Showtime Networks, as it was awarded without public comment and without a competitive procurement process.
3. Hold hearings to gather comment from a broad cross section of the public before undertaking any further actions that limit access to the collections for which the Smithsonian acts as guardian or limit access to the talented and highly capable staff of the Institution.

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