The Smithsonian museums are one of my favorite places ever. But this Smithsonian-Showtime Agreement is really an incredibly awful idea. It apparently gives the Showtime cable network a right of first refusal over the use of any archival items in films or documentaries. Based on what is known so far, if you’re making a documentary about, say, civil rights, and Showtime thinks that they’d like to make a pay-per-view special with that same material they can deny you access.
This clearly violates the spirit of the museum, the collections, and the many donors who have contributed to the collections over the years with the expectation that they’d be freely acccessible, not controlled by a TV network. The fact that the contract is apparently being kept secret is outrageous. No one seems to know exactly what is covered by this contract, how much Showtime is paying the Smithsonian for the access, or anything else. Why is it secret? Are they ashamed of this arrangement and trying to hide how bad it really is? It’s just disgraceful for the Smithsonian to treat their members and the public this way.
UPDATE: Boing Boing has two scathing legal replies to a PR office response from the Smithsonian. Basically, having given Showtime exclusive access so they can make pay-per-view specials, they now intend to selectively deny filmmakers access to the collections except for "incidental" purposes. No one knows what that means, since "incidental" is apparently a deliberately vague standard that they refuse to define or discuss.
They also refuse to discuss any details of the contract with Showtime, despite receiving 75% of their funding from the government and despite past agreements to abide by the FOIA. If this is such a great thing then why are they violating their own policy by refusing to share the details? Probably because they were taken advantage of by Showtime and don’t want to reveal how badly they and the public got shafted on this deal.
I’m unhappy that this imporant issue being handled by PR flacks with form responses. Doesn’t the Smithsonian have any real experts on hand? Are any of them allowed to discuss this?