US Department of Defense’s public domain archive to be privatized, locked up for ten years

Current DIMOC solution for public access.

Current DIMOC solution for public access.

T3 Media got a contract to digitize some of the DOD’s media assets, which are currently in the public domain, for free1. In exchange, they can sell licenses to those digitized assets for 10 years.

On the face of it, this is pretty appalling. Especially when you use words like “privatize” and “locked up” to describe the deal. I’m sympathetic. My mind immediately jumped to the traffic.com debacle, when the Department of Transportation basically paid a contractor millions of dollars to build a system to collect traffic data, and had to turn around and pay that contractor again for the data it collected.

But then I read the documents, and realized that it’s more complicated than the headline suggests.

This material is almost impossible to get in its current form: 300,000 hours of video, 11,000 hours of film, 1.5 million hours of audio, and 700,000 images that are basically locked in a closet. The DOD wants to make the material accessible to themselves through an internal portal and to the public, who would be charged a fee for fulfillment. They want to do this without spending any extra money.

So in exchange for scanning, cataloging, and making the assets available through the DOD and public-facing portal at http://defenseimagery.mil/, T3 gets to charge the public money for downloads. That privilege lasts 10 years, after which they lose exclusivity. The solution was recommended by the National Archive and Records Administration, whose job it is to worry about problems like this. The works themselves remain in the public domain, and the government gets all the digitized assets after the contract is over.

I’m actually fine with this arrangement. It’s not so different than the bargain that allows Google to digitize all those library books. If the notion of a company making money doing this work offends us, we should ask ourselves why an organization like the Prelinger Archives or other non-profit archiving outfit didn’t bid on the work. If we object to the need for DIMOC to hand over these rights at all, we should give DIMOC enough money to pay for digitization services up-front, so we wouldn’t need a contract like this in the first place.

3 responses

  1. No disagreement that the material is presently hard to get to, and that this is a huge digitizing job. All of this was also true with NARA. But a couple of points:

    Google Video (remember them?) announced a big partnership with NARA to digitize its media holdings and make them available online. They did 101 films. Amazon announced a DVD-on-demand program with NARA that gave them some sales exclusivity and the exclusive right to hold onto their digitized materials for a period (I FOIAed the contract and got it, but don’t have it handy this morning). This fizzled. I know some of the backstory about this collection and partnership, but I don’t know its future. I can’t imagine T3Media can make enough back to cover its costs. I think the DoD is going to throw a lot of money at T3 to cover its digitizing, metadata and storage costs, T3 will pay something and get the right to license the materials at prices of their choice, while public access becomes harder.

    But my mind is open. I’d just like to see whether T3 is required to complete the job, whether there is a guarantee that the digital materials will be publicly available for free at some point and when, and what share of expenses each entity is covering.

    • Thanks for reading, Rick! From reading the solicitation, I’m somewhat heartened by a few contract elements:

      * My reading of the bid says DOD is going to pay for shipping the assets to and from the Riverside location, and little else.
      * T3 has to return the digitized items to DIMOC on a regular schedule, not at the end of the contract.
      * It’s a one-year award with nine option years, which means it’ll be pretty effortless to pull the plug if it doesn’t work out.

      I agree with you that T3 is taking an awfully big risk. I have no idea how they’d recoup costs at “commercially competitive” rates, especially since DIMOC earned a paltry $9,227.68 from sales in CY2012.

      • I looked at the revised bidding FAQ and it appears that DoD is committing to an average “cost-sharing” payment of $1MM per year over 5 years, and agrees to revisit and extend the 10-year exclusivity commitment if T3Media’s costs are excessive and it has not recouped its expenses.

        I’ve been in the stock image business for 30 years and I find it very hard to imagine that T3 will recoup its expenses through licensing. I think it’s very likely this contract will go in one of two directions:

        1. T3′s costs will exceed its revenues and the exclusivity arrangement will be renegotiated and extend beyond 10 years, or:

        2. T3 will fulfill the contract up to a point and it will end early, unless it becomes a fully-compensated cost-plus deal with DoD. Other Government archival digitizing partnerships have ended in this manner.

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