Et tu, PBS?

August 29, 2012

Something needs to be done about maintaining access to e-content. You know things are really getting out of control when PBS starts signing distribution deals that all but name exclusive providers. Yes, the Public Broadcasting Service, partially funded with federal money through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has seemingly thrown schools and libraries under the bus in the name of profit. 

Fine, this is capitalism and PBS is a private company (even if it is supposed to be nonprofit) that can make deals in its own best interest, public good be damned. The problem, however, is that in a digital world the public has no recourse. Under licenses and contract law, there is often no way to get content except under the terms established by the producers and distributors. Unlike with analog and the right of first sale where a library could always just go buy the book at a bookstore and then lend it at will, digital licenses offer no alternatives. 

All of this started back in May when PBS inked a new deal with Safari Montage. The agreement declared that company to be “the primary major commercial digital distributor” for PBS content. This new deal cut out other vendors that had previously streamed PBS content—a fact that Safari Montage trumpeted in its press release (PDF): “PBS terminating its U.S. K–12 digital distribution agreements with Discovery Education and Learn360.” Apparently it wasn’t enough for Safari Montage to just announce a victory; the company felt the need to highlight the defeat of other companies. Capitalism at its finest. . . .

This, I fear, is going to be an ongoing discussion regarding digital content. Licensing forces us to engage within the fierce competition of a profit-driven capitalist market. For governmental entities looking to better the public good, capitalism can be a bit rough. Though it is certainly legal for Safari Montage to negotiate what is basically an exclusive commercial distribution deal with PBS—one that will most likely benefit both companies financially—it hurts schools and libraries. The deal removes options  and eliminates opportunities for engaging in actual collection development. With licenses like this, we either take the package the company deigns to give us, or we try and explain to our customers why we don’t have content they expect from us.

PBS is just the tip of the iceberg in this case. Safari Montage, whose parent company is Library Video Company (aka Schlessinger Media), eliminates choice for all digital content: “Safari Montage includes detailed integrated metadata for each Schlessinger Media program and ensures that DRM (Digital Rights Management) is properly executed. Due to the complexities of evaluating these components on other hardware delivery systems, Schlessinger Media programs are not available for licensing on hardware digital delivery systems other than SAFARI Montage. However, Safari Montage can complement any digital delivery system.”

Luckily, there are other options in some cases. In New York, the public television stations have banded together to provide PBS content for school use via VITAL New York to some extent. Not as easy as having everything in a single place, but better than nothing (or the one option we are given). So, my last few workweeks at the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership have been a whirlwind of securing other rights to digital video and frantic encoding of content for our own streaming platform. Self-rescuing libraries are the new future!