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Smithsonian's Ill-Advised Deal with Showtime

The Smithsonian Institution is a museum complex that has been called our national attic, and it is one of the great treasures of American history and life. But in an outrageous deal with a private media company, the Smithsonian has moved down a path that would privatize a vital part of our national cultural commons.

As Carl Malamud, a fellow at the center, writes today:

On March 9, 2006, the Smithsonian Institution entered into a joint venture with Showtime Networks to create a new video-on-demand channel called “Smithsonian On Demand.” The new service has the right of first refusal on any access to Smithsonian collections and staff. For example, if Ken Burns wishes to make a movie that makes “non-incidental use” of the Smithsonian archives or involves “non-incidental” access to staff, he could not offer his movie to PBS. Instead, he would have to offer it to the new venture.

In response to this agreement, 215 concerned citizens have written to the Smithsonian expressing their concern. This letter was delivered to the Smithsonian Institution on April 17, 2006, with copies to 28 U.S. Senators and 23 U.S. Congressmen who have oversight over the Institution.

The center also filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information on the deal, the operating terms of which are being kept secret from American taxpayers — another flagrant violation of the public trust.

CItizen media depends in significant part on our collective and individual ability to mine the riches of our historical and cultural heritage — an essential piece of which resides in the Smithsonian’s many collections — to create new works. Our history should not be for sale to one bidder, or so restricted in use that one greedy media company can control what is ours as a nation, not theirs as a private fief.

I’ve signed the letter to the head of the Smithsonian, as have many other concerned people in a variety of fields. Will the institution and Congress do the right thing? Stay tuned.

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