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What use is intellectual property on a dead planet?

By Nalaka Gunawardene - posted Monday, 10 November 2008

Films and television programs about climate change should be designated a “copyright free zone”.

This was the call made by broadcasters and independent film-makers at an Asian media workshop held in Tokyo last month (October).

For years, broadcasters have dutifully reported on evolving scientific and political aspects of climate change. They have also made or carried excellent documentaries analysing causes of, and solutions to, the problem. But these are often not widely available, because of tight copyright restrictions.


Limited distribution

Most media companies hang on to their products for years, sometimes long after they have recovered their full investment.

Even when film-makers or producers themselves want their creations to circulate beyond broadcasts, company policies get in the way. In large broadcast or film production companies, lawyers and accountants - not journalists or producers - decide how and where content is distributed.

It isn't just climate-related films that are locked up with copyright restrictions. Every year, hundreds of television programs or video films - many supported by public, corporate or philanthropic funds - are made on a variety of development and conservation topics.

These are typically aired once, twice or at best a few times and then relegated to a shelf somewhere. A few may be released on DVD or adapted for online use. But the majority goes into archival “black holes”, from where they might never emerge again.

Yet most of these films have a long shelf life and could serve multiple secondary uses outside the broadcast industry.

Beyond broadcast

Communicating the need for social change is a slow, incremental process. Broadcasts can flag important issues, but real engagement happens in classrooms, training centres and other small groups where screenings stir up deeper discussions. Combining broadcast and “narrowcast” outreach vastly increases the chances of changing people's attitudes and, ultimately, their behaviour.


But if moving images are to play a decisive role in the climate debate, television programs and video films on the subject need to be more freely available, accessible and useable, as argued at the Tokyo workshop.

One example is the 2006 documentary Climate in Crisis, co-produced by Japan's public broadcaster NHK, along with The Science Channel and ALTOMEDIA/France 5.

The film draws heavily on the Earth Simulator - one of the world's most powerful supercomputers, used to predict climate patterns over the next century.

The results are both mind-boggling and alarming. In the coming decades, atmospheric temperatures may rise by as much as 4.2C. This could lead to more frequent and intense hurricanes, spreading deserts and significant loss of the Amazon rainforest. The documentary discusses whether and how humankind can avoid these impacts, drawing on rigorous scientific data.

Yet this hugely important film has not been widely seen, talked about or distributed in Asia - because of copyright restrictions. Only the highest bidders are allowed to acquire it for hefty licence fees.

That is standard broadcast industry practice. Whatever the crisis and however important the cause, most media companies and film-makers keep tight control over copyrights. This is true even in the "majority world" (the global South), where they are unlikely to make any money from the films. Their policy: no fee, no see.

Making a difference

My organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, supplies hundreds of films about development issues. Our non-profit service clears copyrights for top television and video films and then distributes them to broadcast, civil society and educational users in over two dozen developing countries in Asia. We operate outside the crushing licence fee arrangements - copyright owners participate on a purely goodwill basis, allowing their creations to be used far and wide for awareness, advocacy, education and training purposes. End users pay only for copying and dispatch costs.

Such secondary distribution does not change producers' balance sheets, but it gives a whole new life to their films.

For example, when we supplied a television series called Climate Challenge to Vietnam Television last year, it was the first time climate change received in-depth coverage in Vietnam. It marked a turning point in the country's public understanding of this issue.

This is particularly significant because a 2007 survey revealed low levels of interest in climate issues in the Vietnamese media. The World Bank lists Vietnam, with its 3,000km long coastline, as one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

Profit or planetary survival?

Broadcast mandarins routinely support global struggles against poverty, HIV, corruption and climate change by offering free airtime to carry public interest messages. But few let go of their own products on these very subjects for non-broadcast uses.

Making climate change a “copyright free zone” for media products would increase the resource materials available to thousands of educators, social activists and trainers struggling to communicate this complex topic to audiences across the world. Moving images would make their task easier.

The climate crisis challenges everyone to adopt extraordinary measures. Broadcasters and film-makers need to balance their financial interests with planetary survival.

What use is intellectual property on a dead planet?

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First published in on November 4, 2008.

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About the Author

Nalaka Gunawardene is director of TVE Asia Pacific, a regional non-profit media foundation. He blogs on media, society and development at

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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