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Agreements With Networks on Debate Footage Expected In Next Two Weeks

Stanford University professor Lawrence Lessig, one of the people leading talks with television networks to lift restrictions on video of presidential debates, says he expects an agreement from more than one network to lift restrictions in the next two weeks.

"My sense is that there's an initial interest, and people are now thinking about it pretty carefully. I would expect that in the next two weeks we're going to see something significant happen," Lessig said. When asked if that meant an agreement with more than one of the networks, Lessig replied simply, "Yup."

"I can't say I've spoken to people at all the networks, but I have spoken with people at more than one of the networks about this," Lessig said.

Lessig also said he expects other presidential candidates - of both parties - to express support for the efforts. Democrats John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Chris Dodd have already spoken out in support of Lessig's efforts.

A quick recap: Lessig is part of a bipartisan coalition of online activists, bloggers, and the founders of Wikipedia and Craigslist, who are pushing TV networks to lift copyright restrictions on video of the presidential debates.

So far, MSNBC has broadcast a Democratic and Republican debate, and Fox News aired a GOP debate last week. MSNBC allowed C-SPAN to re-air their debates for viewers not subscribed to MSNBC. Fox declined a similar request. Both networks applied "fair use" rules to video of the debates, meaning other news organizations, including washingtonpost.com, could only use clips of the debate for a limited amount of time.
CNN has announced it will allow unrestricted use of video from its early June Democratic and Republican debates.

Last week, the Democratic National Committee announced a list of six debates it's sponsoring. They will air on ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and MSNBC. No word yet from ABC, CBS or NBC/MSNBC if they'll lift copyright restrictions.

Lessig is the founder and director of Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society. He's currently on a year-long sabbatical at the American Academy in Berlin. Lessig has been facilitating conversations with the networks through "a lot of intense e-mail communication, and every once in awhile, what turns out to be a very late night telephone call for me."

"I'm trying to talk through the idea with these executives, and trying to get them to understand what freedoms they'd have under this arrangement," Lessig said. He later added, "I'm optimistic. The more I talk to these people, the more they understand."

So if all the major networks lift copyright restrictions on debates, does Lessig declare victory, pack up and go home?

"I certainly wouldn't be pushing NBC to release "Meet the Press." I think those are different cases. From my perspective, public forums, where candidates are discussing the issues, clearly ought to be free."

So -- pardon the pun -- stay tuned.

-- Ed O'Keefe

By Ed O'Keefe |  May 23, 2007; 10:39 AM ET Debates
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