Bill in legislature seeks to put Iowa PBS content in public domain

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A bill in the Iowa state legislature would put Iowa PBS content in the public domain, a move that the station argues would leave both it and the state open to lawsuits.

Jim Gibbons, a former Iowa State University wrestling coach, is lobbying for the legislation after a failed attempt to obtain archival footage that included him. In August 2020, Iowa PBS began working with a California production on a documentary about a 1986 wrestling match between Iowa State and the University of Iowa. 

The contract between Iowa PBS and the production company ended in April 2021 after talks broke down over editorial control, according to Susan Ramsey, director of communications for Iowa PBS. In June 2021, Gibbons asked the station for permission to make use of the documentary, which Iowa PBS denied, according to Jake Highfill, a lobbyist who is backing the bill. (Ramsey declined to discuss the station’s previous communications with Gibbons.)

Gibbons wants the production company to be able to release the archival footage, which Iowa PBS owns, without the threat of a lawsuit from Iowa PBS or the state, according to Gibbons’ legal counsel, who wished not to be named because they also represent Iowa broadcasters and the Iowa Newspaper Association.

The bill in the statehouse would bar Iowa PBS, which is part of the state Department of Education, or any other state entity from enforcing copyright on content created more than 10 years previously. 

While the bill awaits committee action, representatives of Iowa PBS are meeting with lawmakers to illustrate what they believe is a financial risk to the state. If the bill passes, Iowa PBS would have to spend money on legal fees to protect contracts it signs with partners every time an individual wants access to archival footage, Ramsey said.

“The bill as written would make it impossible for us to defend or protect any of the existing contracts that we have on all of the productions that we do,” Ramsey said. “We are the custodians of [the content] — it doesn’t legally belong solely to us. There are a lot of other partners involved, whether it’s us partnering with someone to cover their event like a symphony or a ballet or a sporting event … so they have a legal and financial interest in that. Our underwriters have a legal and financial interest in it.”

Iowa PBS regularly negotiates licensing agreements for content it produces, considering requests on a case-by-case basis, Ramsey said.

“If a project is free to access, benefits Iowans and furthers our educational mission, we have often just exchanged permission for a courtesy or credit,” she said. “If it is a commercial venture with limited educational or historic value, we have negotiated a cost. We deny requests for political use.”

Contracts with partners such as the Des Moines Metro Opera may stipulate streaming licenses, the time window within which a show can air, and other rights. As part of the opera’s collective bargaining with a musicians’ union, it agrees on broadcast parameters and compensation tied to their work.

“To provide access to those performances without any limits and to put that in the public domain would have a Pandora’s box of legal concerns for us or any number of our entities and our contractors,” said Michael Egel, general and artistic director of the Des Moines Metro Opera.

According to state Rep. Brent Siegrist, legislators are considering amendments to the bill that could limit its scope to sporting events hosted by taxpayer-funded entities, including public high schools and universities. That could alleviate some immediate legal concerns for nonprofit arts organizations such as the opera, Egel said.

The bill recently moved out of subcommittee and is eligible for committee action, though Siegrist said he and other lawmakers hope that Gibbons and Iowa PBS can come to an agreement and avoid the need for legislation.

“We’re trying to hold it up for a while to see if there’s some compromise,” Siegrist said. “My message would be: Let’s see if we can work this out without legislation. And I think there’s at least a shot at getting that done.”

Gibbons’ legal counsel dismissed Iowa PBS’ concerns about contract disputes as hyperbolic, advocating for archival footage to be included in the public domain for the use of students and parents.

The dispute between Gibbons and Iowa PBS illustrates a bigger problem for Iowans, Highfill said. He believes Iowa PBS is gatekeeping footage of high-school and university sports, particularly wrestling footage in a state where the sport is king.

“They’re sitting on 40 years of documentary [footage]. … It’s kind of like Scrooge McDuck sitting on his money,” Highfill said. “Our end goal has changed now — it’s to get everything else out. They have footage from every high-school wrestling meet ever.”

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