Open Video and the Democratization of Multimedia

Video and the Commons Working Group

Last month I attended a very interesting discussion in New York about the potential for collaborations among news and cultural heritage organizations around video content. This discussion led to formation of a working group that will consider ways to share knowledge, tools, and potentially project funding. Before the inspiration of the moment fades, I want to share some of the key info and thoughts I brought back from that meeting.


Five centuries ago the moveable type press massively expanded the reach of printed language and the tools of authorship. The printing press didn’t just open access to knowledge. It transformed expectations about what kind of society we could have. The idea that a person could participate in public life became possible only with the spread of literacy and access to the printed record of human knowledge and culture.

Today we are living through another historic expansion of access to the consumption and authorship of human knowledge and culture, enabled by the Internet and digital multimedia. For more than a century the practice of filmmaking was limited to people with specialized skills and technology resources. Today anyone with a smart phone has access to high definition video production and distribution technologies.

With more than 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, it’s clear the moving image has joined print as a primary element of our daily communication. Video is now a part of human language. But the norms, technologies, and thicket of rights around video still limit its role in the commons. While text, images, audio, and data have become easy to access, manipulate, and remix, the reuse of video remains constrained.

For those of us working to build a universally accessible knowledge commons, limitations on the role of video are problematic.

Video and the Commons Working Group

To begin addressing this challenge, a Video and the Commons working group has been formed to consider new models of open video licensing and peer production. Participants from the Wikimedia Foundation, Creative Commons, the Internet Archive, New America Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, the Institute for Nonprofit News, the City University of New York, and the PBS NewsHour have begun developing a plan for bringing open video to the commons.

The working group was convened for an initial meeting in New York by Ben Moskowitz (Mozilla) and Peter Kaufman (Columbia University, Intelligent Television) with a mission to make video a first-class citizen on the Internet, like text, images, data, and sound. This will require two key things: a commitment to licensing that facilitates public sharing, and new tools for easy access and reuse of video.

Licensing for Public Reuse

The licensing protocols and tools developed by Creative Commons provide a comprehensive and legally defensible framework for specifying terms for reuse of copyrighted works of all types. Public sharing of content without giving up copyrights is now a solved problem. But the economics of video production and the complex of rights associated with its elements often work against putting it out for public reuse. What has been lacking is a commitment by producers and organizations to produce video in a way that can be licensed for the commons.

This is changing for many cultural heritage institutions at the urging of foundations like Hewlett and Mellon, who increasingly require open access to the media content generated from the projects they fund. Especially in the case of archival media, clearing rights can be challenging and expensive. These funders believe the costs associated with open content are more than recouped by the social value in making the content free to reuse.

That value can be unlocked by helping rights holders to feel secure committing to an open content strategy. This will require resources for education, advocacy, and support.

So we were all elated as Creative Commons announced receipt of an unrestricted multi-year grant of $10 million from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to strengthen the knowledge commons movement. The grant will enable Creative Commons to more deeply engage with content creators, rights holders, developers, scholars, and a growing community of users and collaborators to build sustainable models for the content commons.

In announcing the Hewlett grant, Creative Commons CEO Ryan Merkley told the Working Group they are especially interested in working with journalists and news organizations to expand the use of CC licenses for news content.

That’s when working group participants from the PBS NewsHour raised a very interesting possibility.

Open News

What if the NewsHour were to publish hundreds of hours of video from their 2016 election coverage under a Creative Commons license allowing for non-commercial reuse? This might include gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic national conventions, interviews with candidates, incumbents, party officials, and analysts, along with B-roll footage.

Other news organizations (and anyone else) would then have access to the raw video content for use in their own stories and productions. Creative Commons could provide guidance and support (and potentially grants) to producers of the content and those who want to reuse it.

If we want to engage more people in collaborating on knowledge and culture using multimedia, the most important thing we can do is to make more high-quality multimedia content available for reuse. We need to nourish a culture of open production and collaboration around digital storytelling, including video. We need to educate producers, news organizations, and public media about how to make content sharable via Creative Commons licensing without giving up their copyrights and potential commercial licensing revenue.

Next we need better creative tools that facilitate and broaden participation in multimedia journalism and storytelling. Mozilla and the Wikimedia Foundation are hoping to do that by bringing video editing to the browser.

Video Remix

It’s now trivially easy to copy, paste, edit, save, annotate, and share text, images, raw data, and even sound using free desktop tools, and even within a web browser. But until recently, in-browser editing and annotation of digital video seemed farfetched. At the first Open Video Conference in 2009 some great ideas were floated and then sank under the weigh of proprietary video formats and browsers that didn’t comply with W3C standards. But in the last few years, the adoption of HTML5 and the maturation of certain JavaScript libraries have enabled development of some amazing news tools for online video.

One of these is a framework developed by Mozilla called Popcorn Editor. Popcorn enables easy browser-based remixing of video from multiple sources: adding clips, resequencing, annotating, deleting, and exporting a final version. But actually there is no actual final version since each revision is stored in a version history, and can easily be restored. Video clips can be stored on Wikimedia Commons, the Internet Archive, Amazon S3, or any other location accessible via http.

There exist many other tools for collaborative video editing, like Zaption,WeVideo, Kaltura, and of course YouTube Editor, but each of these has significant technical dependencies and licensing limitations. Popcorn Editor is an open source project that can be deployed by anyone with basic coding stills, and used freely by anyone with ideas.

Popcorn Editor isn’t a scriptorium; it’s a moveable type press.

If We Build It Will They Come?

As a multimedia journalist and producer I think carefully about sources and story elements. Who or what is credible and provides information or perspective to the story? I’m talking about people, documents, photographs, audio, and increasingly video. A good source or story element may be inaccessible given available resources and the production timeline.

With a tool like Popcorn Editor, I could quickly assemble video elements from open licensed video resources across the web. I might invite others to participate in a given production via the web. A deployment of Popcorn Editor on a website might itself become a new kind of collaborative storytelling platform.

But let’s say we have access to a vast store of video content licensed for reuse under Creative Commons. We have an open source browser-based video editor anyone can use to create stories, news, art, documentaries, and who knows what other forms of media from openly licensed elements.

Will people actually use it?

I expect Popcorn Editor or some iteration of it will gain critical mass when the timing and formula are right. The current version evolved from the failure of Popcorn.js, which came too early in the adoption of HTML5. At this writing the Editor needs further development and better documentation. Members of the working group include seriously talented developers from Mozilla and the Wikimedia Foundation, and that work is happening now.

Coverage of presidential elections has been increasingly dominated by large news organizations with outsized resources and privileged access to sources. The news agenda and narrative has largely been defined by a handful of corporate news giants, and public disengagement with political news is a byproduct of this trend. What if anyone could make use of raw materials produced by the news giants to broaden the narrative? What if we gave more people an outlet? What kind of stories would they tell?

I don’t know if the timing is right. Maybe we’ll all shrug and continue to turn on (or off) Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, PBS, and Comedy Central. We probably need some pioneers to show how this could work.

The most likely pioneers might be among today’s students who are all now digital natives, and journalists in public media and nonprofit news. And I expect that as this unfolds we’ll begin to see some interesting experiments. I’m planning some of those myself.

Your Mission If You Choose to Accept It

“The Society of Professional Journalists is dedicated to the perpetuation of a free press as the cornerstone of our nation and our liberty.” I like that as a general statement. The SPJ mission statement adds that journalists should “encourage a climate in which journalism can be practiced freely.”

The free press could only become free when it was possible for anyone to access the tools of print. Five centuries after the moveable type press, the Internet enables anyone to access the tools of multimedia. I think we should encourage a climate where multimedia journalism can be practiced freely.

With that our adventures could get a lot more interesting.