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Rick Prelinger is the archivist's archivist when it comes to
industrial and vernacular films. He is the co-founder of the
(with spouse Megan Shaw Prelinger), a private research library
located in San Francisco. He wrote The
Field Guide to Sponsored Films (2007), which “describes 452
historically or culturally significant motion pictures commissioned
by businesses, charities, advocacy groups, and state or local
government units between 1897 and 1980.” It is available as a book
and as a free PDF from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
He recently (from 2005–07) worked at the Internet Archive on a
project to digitize
large-scale texts and recently helped organize the Open Content Alliance.
What sets him apart is a desire to make the intellectual properties
available for free to one and all. Recently, we discussed that
rare, generous quality of openness and the reasons why cultural
artifacts should be “appropriation-friendly.”
The stacks at the Prelinger Library, San Francisco.
Heller: What do you mean by the term
Prelinger: When we tell people our library and archives are
“appropriation-friendly,” we don't mean “steal this book,” but
rather that we encourage consumptive use of our collections to make
new work. Art, culture and science are almost always built upon
work that's come before, and we want to provide access to
historical materials so as to enable new authorship.
Heller: For decades now you have been collecting, cataloging
and anthologizing—as well as analyzing—industrial, educational and
cautionary films. They have spoken to the mores and aspirations of
the nation. But even as historical documents they are not copyright
free, are they?
Rick Prelinger in the film vault of the Prelinger Library, San
Prelinger: When our moving image collection was at its
largest, it totaled about 60,000 items, of which some 65 percent
were in the public domain and 30 percent under copyright—we held
rights to the remaining 5 percent. If you leave the world of
Hollywood features and television and enter the world of ephemeral
film—advertising, educational industrial and amateur film—you find
yourself in an almost copyright-free zone, where many films were
never properly copyrighted and those that were almost always were
never renewed. Until the late 1970s, in fact, most copyrighted
works of any kind were never renewed—books from the 1920s through
1970s average something around 15 percent. We therefore had a great
deal of material to work with, so much so that I have rarely had
the need to clear copyright in order to use a work.
Heller: You began collecting before the age of digitization
and internet access. How has this changed your archive, your
collecting methodology and, ultimately, your goal?
Prelinger: I moved to San Francisco in early 1999. Though
I was a heavy internet user even then and had produced 14 CD-ROMs,
the Bay Area technological mindset was new to me. I didn't know
about open-source culture. I thought information wanted to be
expensive. When I met Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, the first thing he
asked me was, “Want to put your archives online for free?” I
stuttered. I thought he was crazy. I couldn't understand how this
could be in our interest.
Still from Long Distance, a 1941 documentary by AT&T,
available in the Prelinger Archives.
Heller: But you did. You took the plunge . . .
Prelinger: The more I learned, though, I realized that it
was probably a pretty good idea. We started in late 2000 with a
small collection of 200 online films, which quickly grew to 1,000,
and then to 2,100. At that time few people had put any rich media
such as film and video online, and those that did certainly didn't
make material available for free, unrestricted downloading and
reuse, as did we. What I found quite quickly was something I could
never have imagined: We became implicit collaborators with hundreds
of thousands of people around the world who downloaded our films
for use in their own media productions; our collection moved from
the cultish fringe to become an integral part of the world's
cultural infrastructure; we had some 60 million films downloaded;
and we made more money licensing footage. Howzat? What we
found we could do was give away near-DVD quality material under a
Creative Commons license, but charge for value-added services, such
as higher-quality material and, most important, written license
agreements. To this day, our sales are up and people continue to
pay for material that they might conceivably download for free.
It's a two-tier system—free and fee—and we think it has
implications far outside the small world of stock image
I also started to draw some distance between my activities and
the classic role of the collector. What we now do in the film
archives and our print library is collect with some kind of a
public purpose, ultimately for public use. (This means any barriers
that inhibited me from collecting lots of stuff have fallen down.)
When the Library of Congress acquired our film archives in 2002 I
thought I'd stop collecting archival film, but it turned out there
were so many reasons to keep collecting, and so much media needing
a home. The U.S. is such a media-rich country—we throw away more
media than most nations ever produce, and the majority of it is
never saved. This creates tremendous opportunities, sometimes
burdens, for archivists.
Heller: You are an avid archivist and historian, but the
films are also used as “stock.” How does this fit into your
Prelinger: Stock sales fund collecting, screenings,
artwork, lectures and presentations. I engage in all of these
pursuits much more intensely than I'd be able to without licensing
material. I see no conflict between pursuing archival/historical
activities and charging people for access to our collections,
especially when so much of it is available for free.
Still from Light of Your Life, a promotional film about light
bulbs by General Electric, in the Prelinger Archives.
Heller: Returning to the controversy of “appropriation,”
there are opposing factions for copyright and copy-left. Where do
Prelinger: I was a copyright-reform activist for much of
the dismal 2000s. We were the first significant collection to offer
our material to the public under a Creative Commons license, and
I've traveled the world to talk to library, archival and producer
audiences about access to archives and making culture freer. But in
the past few years I've been trying to do less of this. At this
point there are quite a number of extremely thoughtful and
qualified people working on issues such as fair use, orphan works
and term extension, and I'm going to leave it to them.
Where do I stand? I believe that copyright law needs a massive
rewrite, but that isn't very likely right now, because the
evolution of copyright law is largely controlled by large
transnational media companies. On the other hand, daily practice
has evolved way beyond what copyright law allows, and this is
likely to cause legal changes over time. I strongly believe that
artists, most of whose work is unlikely to generate significant
income, should not let themselves be inhibited by what they think
copyright law says. It hurts me to get emails from young and
emerging artists asking whether the law permits them to do
something. There's a chilling effect at work. I think they should
focus on doing their work, and leave legal issues to the many
thoughtful people who are working on them right now.
Heller: How did the transfer of your archive to the Library
of Congress occur? And where does the library stand regarding
Prelinger: I was concerned about succession issues, what
would happen to the archives when I grew old or died. We worked out
a deal with the Library to take our collection. It was a huge
acquisition for them, reportedly their largest film acquisition
ever, and because it's so huge it hasn't yet been unpacked and put
on shelves. We expect this to happen in 2010.
The Library says they're open to making public domain material
available online; in fact, they've been doing so for over 10 years
through their American Memory
project. One of the reasons we wanted our archives to go to LC
was because of their long-term interest not simply in preservation,
but in access. I think we'll see some interesting initiatives come
from LC in time, even if large institutions sometimes move more
slowly than small ones.
Still from How the Ear Functions, a 1940 informational film by
Bosse, in the Prelinger Archives.
Heller: How has the increased protection (and litigation)
over intellectual property impacted your collections and
Prelinger: The “IP wars” haven't really affected our
collections, because we work in a world of public domain material,
and that's where I'd really like to stay!
Heller: What's next for you?
Prelinger: I made a feature film in 2004, Panorama Ephemera. I'm working on a new film this year,
an archivally based film on mobility and travel in America, but
since so much of it is going to coalesce out of the editing
process, I don't have much to say at this point.
But the biggest thrill this past six years has been Prelinger
Library, the appropriation-friendly library in downtown San
Francisco that my spouse, Megan, and I opened up in summer 2004.
It's composed of our own collection of some 30,000 books, about 700
periodical runs, and about 30,000 items of paper ephemera organized
into about 650 archival boxes. We don't have a catalog; rather,
Megan designed an organizational scheme around which materials are
shelved. It's designed to enable serendipity and discovery; as
Gideon Lewis-Kraus said in his
Harper's article about the library, it's where “you go
to find what you're not looking for.” Most of our visitors—and
we've had more than 5,000—tend to be artists or makers looking for
material to incorporate into their work. We encourage photography,
scanning and copying. What happens on the two days a week we're
open tends to be much more than old-school library use—the library
is really a collaborative workspace where ideas sprout, discussions
happen and projects cross-fertilize. Though I still do a lot of
public speaking as a kind of meta-archivist, I find I learn a great
deal on library days. While reading, publishing, art and authorship
are all in massive flux right now, running the library has made it
very clear to us that we live in a hybrid analog-digital world, and
that neither analog nor digital reigns supreme.
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