Why the Coastside Fire Board should keep the copyright to tapes of its meetings


Posted by on Wed, February 20, 2008

NOTE: The Coastside Fire Protection District board is considering whether it should hire MCTV or Montara Fog to tape its meetings. This is my prepared statement to the board at its meeting Tuesday night.

In the four years that I have been publishing Coastsider, my priority has always been to cover all boards on the Coastside as honestly and fairly as possible. As part of that commitment, I have devoted a great deal of time and energy to taping public meetings which are also taped by MCTV.

I have had to do this because MCTV will not allow any Coastside news organization to reuse video of meetings they have taped.

Ultimately MCTV will have to acknowledge that tapes of elected boards that are paid for with public money are owned by the public and not by MCTV. But in the meantime, I recommend that regardless of which vendor the board chooses to tape its meetings, that the district insist that the vendor not interfere with public’s right to the contents of the tapes.

There is more than one way to do this, but MCTV’s current misguided policy is not in the public’s interest or that of the board, and is based strictly on the self-interest of the station itself.

The public is denied easy access to newsworthy events that happen in board meetings when they are buried in gavel-to-gavel coverage.

Boards are vulnerable to having their actions distorted by news reports and by political opponents when the actual proceedings are not freely available to the public.

And the community as a whole is impoverished when public property is treated as private property, even by a nonprofit organization.

Whichever vendor you choose to tape your meetings or to distribute them on the web, I urge the board to insist that the final product is the property of the public and available for reuse by anyone who wants it.




Comment 1
Wed, February 20, 2008 4:06pm
Barry Parr
All my comments

It’s very strange. I do a lot of public speaking in my job and I’m good at it.  But every time I speak in front of one of these local boards, my heart races and my hands shake.

I’m glad no one was taping my performance.

Ahhh, you should try it with a high fever!



I was taping, but just audio.  The recording will be up on MontaraFog, soon.  It’s the third audio segment.  In editing it, I found it was one of those real gems.  I was happy to be able to participate in and capture it.  It was a dramatic confrontation between the old media and the new media played out on an unlikely local stage.

I don’t see any point in copyrighting the material I record.  For me personally, it’s an accessible record of what happens at public meetings that keeps our elected officials honest and constrains the spin of our local for pay media and blog contributors.  Transparency in government is my goal.

My investment was a couple hundred dollars in equipment.  It takes a couple of hours to upload, edit, convert, compress and write some text annotation.  Ten years ago it probably would have been ten thousand dollars worth of equipment to get the same quality and a whole lot more personal time to process on an ongoing basis.  It’s not rocket science, children are doing similar things in schools, now.

There is the issue of the cult of the amateurs versus the professionals. There are some folks that look at me as a amateur with cheap technology degrading their traditional livelihood by giving it away for free like a slut.  Some of the implications of what Connie Malach was saying were actually worse that being called a slut.  It was more like some of us were taking resources away form local people in need by undercutting her 501C corporation’s mission.  Hunter S. Thompson said something like, “We are all professionals here.”

I’m not really a data wants to be free fanatic.  Artists, creative types and even hacks deserve to be compensated for their labors.  But, trying to copyright something of such little value as a recording of a government meeting is absurd.  The Brown Act permits anybody to record public meetings(competition and generally boring subject matter).  Once the meeting loses its “news” value it’s as valuable as an old newspaper on a park bench(litter).  There is an official recording and minutes which become the official record that anyone can get for near free(taxpayer subsidized official competition).  If one wants to make a profit off something, this is the worst possible product.

The higher good here is making government transparent, not making sure this fits the legal constraints of MCTV’s charter decades ago.  In the past few years MCTV has been unresponsive to the local Boards that wanted their meetings broadcast.  Now that grassroots new media and technology are able to compete with MCTV, they have suddenly become responsive, but only within their constraints.  They feel a need to control it all, including the copyrights.  If MCTV clings to their position, their mission will erode.

Comment 4
Wed, February 20, 2008 11:58pm
Leonard Woren
All my comments

It is ludicrous that an entity paid with public money should claim a restrictive exclusive copyright to those recordings.  Isn’t MCTV a “public benefit corporation”?  They are not acting in the public interest.

One claim that was made at the Fire board meeting is that the charges don’t pay the full cost.  Really?  Prove it!  The camera operator is paid basically minimum wage or close to it, from the almost $300 which the local agencies are charged for the recording.  Playback is via automated equipment, so playback costs are very low.  Throw in $10 for tapes, and we’re still nowhere near that $300.

For discussion purposes, let’s temporarily accept the bogus claim that the above fee doesn’t pay the full costs.  Where does the rest of the money come from?  The franchise fee allocation that the City and the County receive from Comcast!  That’s just a different form of public money—it’s a line item tax on your cable TV bill.

If the fees don’t pay the full costs, why is MCTV so desperate to keep all the local agency business?  “We sell at a loss, but we make it up in volume.”  Of course they’re making a profit on this.

So one way or another, essentially the whole cost is paid from public money.  Therefore, the public should own the copyright.  The appropriate way to do that is to have each agency retain full rights, and license those rights via something like Creative Commons where anyone can do as they wish with the material except restrict use of the material.

One more thing:  What about MCTV’s usurious $50 charge for a copy of a meeting recording?  I can make a DVD on a high quality blank (around $0.40) with a few minutes of my time.  Even if I did nothing but stare at the machine the whole time it’s reading the original and burning the copy, that’s still a fraction of the $50 at my billing rate which I’m sure is much higher than what anyone at MCTV gets paid.  There’s simply no possible way that $50 for a DVD isn’t nearly pure profit.

Comment 5
Thu, February 21, 2008 10:54am
Barry Parr
All my comments

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that intellectual property is a bad thing. I’ve been extremely careful on Coastsider not to use others’ writing or photographs without permission.

What I’m saying is that the public record shouldn’t owned by private parties.

Vince is also correct that the actual monetary value of the recordings is insignificant. I have zero financial interest in being able to stream the newsworthy portions of public meetings.

Darin’s got the recordings of the discussion up on Montara Fog:


Comment 6
Thu, February 21, 2008 12:12pm
Darin Boville
All my comments

Here’s my two cents on the copyright issue.

First, as for my own videos and photographs, no matter whether they are published on Coastsider, Montara Fog, or in any other form—they are copyrighted.

Why? Because I am the one who created those works. I am the one who paid for those works. Artists and content providers aren’t reverse charities. While there may be little to no hope of monetary gain from holding the copyright to certain works—such as government meetings—the principle still holds.

With that in mind I am very generous with my photos and videos, allowing and encouraging wide dissemination with little to nothing asked for in return. I do prevent certain uses—I’ve had several requests for the use of my photos and videos for use in the real estate industry to advertise the attractiveness of our area to buyers and builders. Since I owned my work via the copyright I was able to decline that category of use.

But my view on the copyright question regarding the competing proposals from MCTV and my own Montara Fog is just the opposite.

Why the switch?

Because the public interest far and away outweighs the private interest.

That’s the key issue.

There are exceptions. The government, even though it is paying, doesn’t have to automatically make it public. There are important areas such as in national security and certain kinds of scientific research where it is deemed that the private interest trumps. But this is far and away the exception, not the rule.

What possible case could be made for allowing a private entity to own videos of government meetings paid for by the government? What possible case could you think up that would be powerful enough to outweigh the public’s need to learn what what goes on at these meetings—the whole point in filming them in the first place?

I can think of none.

It is a self-defeating policy to copyright (and thus legally restrict the public’s use of and access to) government-funded videos of government meetings.


Comment 7
Tue, February 26, 2008 8:38pm
Carl May
All my comments

It is a fundamental premise of copyright that the one who pays for the creation of something owns the copyright. For private dealings, it is sometimes necessary to spell this out in a “work made for hire” agreement.

In the case of government money, it has long been an assumption that any creation wholly paid for with government money is essentially being paid for by the taxpaying citizen and is in the public domain (copyright-free). Thus, permission to reproduce creations that are entirely government-backed is usually not necessary. At the same time, government may charge to provide a copy of creative content in one medium or another.

Nothing about the situation requires fiddling with a Creative Commons copyright giveaway.

There are endless ins and outs to this matter, and plenty of misunderstandings, especially when the creation of something is only partially subsidized by the government. But if it is *all* taxpayer money paying for something, the resolution should be simple.

The legalities in this case are probably partially tied up in the language of the contracts under which MCTV operates and its legal status as an entity. I don’t know what that is. Good IP lawyers are probably pretty rare hereabouts, but if one exists, this might be a possibility for some pro bono advice.

Carl May