House Passes Bill That Could Expose Iowa PBS To Litigation Over Copyright Law

Screenshot from Iowa House

The Iowa House passed a bill Monday that would allow anyone to use archived footage from Iowa PBS—regardless of copyright—for independent projects, even though doing so could cost the state a lot of money and raises legal concerns.

The bill is the result of former Iowa State wrestling coach Jim Gibbons pushing for footage from a wrestling documentary project that fell through last year.

Gibbons and House Republicans have argued it’s necessary to protect this footage so it isn’t lost. But just last year, the legislature approved funds for Iowa PBS to digitize and upload archival footage online. Already, archival footage must be made available for viewing when a public records request is submitted.

Iowa PBS Communications Director Susan Ramsey said they frequently have requests for videos, usually related to big events that participants want copies of.

“We make dubs available upon request, asking that whoever is requesting them pay for the cost of creating that dub so that other taxpayer dollars aren’t going into someone getting something of a personal interest to them,” she said.

Other requests are handled on an individual basis and are based on how the material is used. She said Iowa PBS has tried to negotiate with Gibbons about moving forward with the documentary, which fell through because of arguments about how it should be edited while being able to share at least some of it on-air.

The original agreement Iowa PBS had was with a California production company, not with Gibbons.

According to the fiscal note, the state would have to pay an estimated additional $231,000 for Iowa PBS to follow this law. The cost could be higher to deal with lawsuits over copyright infringement that could come over music use and breaches of contract. Iowa PBS typically doesn’t own all the material in its broadcasts. It instead relies on licensed materials that have been negotiated for.

Ramsey said the biggest concern is the bill’s attempt to change copyright law by allowing people to access the footage as if it were their own and allow them to edit and distribute it.

“It makes it very, very difficult on us to meet the terms of what the law says,” she said. “And as well as to protect the agreements already in place.”

She said they’re also concerned about people no longer partnering with Iowa PBS because PBS will lose some of the responsibility for what happens to videos.

“We have proved ourselves trustworthy and responsible for our content in making sure that the story that we told is accurate, is important to the people of Iowa, and is done with a high level of quality and journalistic integrity,” Ramsey said. “We’re no longer going to be able to ensure that our content faces that same scrutiny once it’s in someone else’s hands and they’re free to do with it as they choose.”

Digitization costs $15 per minute, and additional staff would be required to fulfill requests and to do legal research, according to a letter PBS gave to lawmakers before the Monday debate.

Rep. Megan Jones (R-Sioux Rapids) championed the bill. She said it’s necessary for Iowans to be able to tell their own stories. Jones also said it probably won’t lead to a wave of requests.

“Iowa PBS provides a valuable service within our state; however, lately it has come to light that this potential service is really not all that it could be,” she said. “And I really appreciate Rep. (Jennifer) Konfrst’s remarks in particular because had adults come to the table, this wouldn’t have been brought forward by an Iowan who just wanted to share the story of Iowa.”

Konfrst (D-Windsor Heights), who previously worked for Iowa PBS, said this bill is too wide-reaching. She said it would hurt Iowans because recordings of events such as the ballet, symphony, or opera may no longer be available through Iowa PBS.

“I’ve seen the conversations that happen with external partners who are so excited to put their content on the air with the understanding that that content will only be shared in the way that was already agreed to,” she said.

For the ballet and the opera, Konfrst explained, music rights are involved. This bill could result in those organizations not partnering with Iowa PBS because those rights can’t extend beyond a certain point.

Ramsey shared that concern, too.

“We will not have as many opportunities to bring those things into everyone’s living room for free as we have over the years,” Ramsey said. “And that means our historical record of Iowansthose important moments, whether they’re cultural, historicalthat that would be a huge lost opportunity not just to us, but to the state as a whole.”

The House passed the bill with a vote of 54-39. Two Republicans joined Democrats in opposition to the bill: Rep. Jacob Bossman, (R-Sioux City), and Rep. Jon Dunwell, (R-Newton). It has moved to the Iowa Senate for discussion and a vote. If it passes, it will head to Gov. Kim Reynolds for her signature.


Nikoel Hytrek


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2 Comments on "House Passes Bill That Could Expose Iowa PBS To Litigation Over Copyright Law"

  • I must say, trying to be polite, that some of the bills being pushed along by Iowa Republican legislators this year, apart from the other problems in the bills, do not seem to reflect strong abilities to look at legal and fiscal realities and fully consider logical consequences.

  • Just another example of the Iowa Legislature wrecking something! Is this really about access to video or is it another way for the legislature to get rid of Public Television? One or two costly lawsuits could end public television, and no lower, flat tax will keep people here if there is no PBS.

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