The International Amateur Scanning League

Sometimes it just takes a determined set of commoners to get the job done. Impatient with the lethargy of the federal government in making its own films and videos available online, info-activist Carl Malamud has launched the International Amateur Scanning League. Dozens of volunteers are digitizing government-produced DVDs on everything from agricultural advice to presidential addresses, and putting them on the Internet.

Some 200,000 such DVDs are nominally available to the American people, but unless you live in Washington, D.C., and can personally visit the National Archives, your only option is to buy a copy from Amazon.com. The Scanning League aims to liberate those videos for everyone — for free.

As the New York Times (March 15) tells the story:

Armed with nothing but a DVD duplicator and a YouTube account, the volunteers have copied and uploaded, among other video clips, an address by John F. Kennedy; a silent film about the Communist "red scare"; a training video on farming; and a Disney film for World War II soldiers about how to avoid malaria, in Spanish. So far, nothing elusive has emerged — but the project is in its infancy.

"It’s a cornucopia of information," said Justin Grimes, another league volunteer. The league is a small demonstration that volunteers can sometimes achieve what bureaucracies can’t or won’t. The government’s 10-year broadband plan, to be submitted to Congress this week, will include a vision for Video.gov, a proposed home for video from federal agencies. The proposal is sure to be cheered by people who want the government to put more materials online. But Mr. Malamud and his volunteers are not waiting.

As the head of PublicResource.org, Malamud has staged many ingenious guerrilla actions against foot-dragging government agencies. This one is different in that it has the full support of the National Archives and Records Administration. The U.S. Archivist, David Ferriero, actually joined Malamud in teaching volunteers how to rip DVDs.

But a lot of the energy has come from CopyNight, a monthly social gathering of people interested in restoring balance in copyright law. "We meet over drinks once a month in many cities to discuss new developments and build social ties between artists, engineers, filmmakers, academics, lawyers, and many others," its website reports. The Washington, D.C. affiliate meets at a restaurant near Union Station, and decided to support Malamud’s effort.

Under his FedFlix program ("No late charges in the public domain!"), Malamud has already digitized some 1,300 federal videos from places like the Federal Aviation Administration and National Technical Information Service. (Go to PublicResource.org’s Facebook channel here.) But as Malamud told the Times, "The motherlode is the archives."

As a kind of recognition for the volunteers, the Scanning League has created a variety of "Public Domain Merit Badges” — a Katharine Graham badge for 10 DVD scanned; a Thomas Edison badge for 75; and a Sonia Sotomayor for 100 DVDs scanned.

Volunteers report great satisfaction in making our national video treasures freely available. But Malamud also points out that this is very pro-business: "When citizens help make works of the government more broadly available, this leads not only to increased access by the public but a host of commercial opportunities for print-on-demand, DVD sales, and other value-added operations."

The International Amateur Scanning League may represent a new model of commoner/government cooperation. Why not enlist commoners to take water quality samples and aggregate them in real-time for use by the EPA? Why not host online networks of auto enthusiasts to report suspected design flaws in their automobiles, so that everyone won’t have to wait years for the automaker to 'fess up to the problems (as Toyota was recently forced to do)?

The mind boggles at the possibilities. Of course, the biggest problem is not technical in nature; it is a problem of the imagination among the powerful. Government agencies usually don’t welcome probing outside scrutiny. Transparency and active citizen participation can derail the agenda that agency leaders may have. Perhaps the Scanning League can help change some minds, by showing how the commoners, if properly mobilized, could help government fulfill its mission more efficiently, creatively and with greater moral authority.

Originally published by David Bollier at Onthecommons.org under a Creative Commons Attribution license.