Correction to This Article
This Style article incorrectly said the National Archives is sending original versions of historic film footage to a California company to be digitized. Only copies of the originals are being sent. The same article said, based on information supplied by the Archives, that its Universal Newsreels begin in 1920. The footage dates from 1929. .

Amazon to Copy and Sell Archives' Footage

The 1960  presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy is among the newsreels that will be available on DVD.
The 1960 presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy is among the newsreels that will be available on DVD. (Macneil-lehrer Productions)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The National Archives and Records Administration announced yesterday that it has reached a non-exclusive agreement with and one of its subsidiaries to reproduce and sell to the public copies of thousands of historic films and videotapes in the Archives' holdings.

The arrangement allows Amazon and a California subsidiary, CustomFlix Labs, to make digitized copies of some of history's most famous, and infamous, footage and make them available in DVD form for purchase via the Internet.

Archives and CustomFlix officials stressed yesterday that the agreement is non-exclusive, unlike the controversial semi-exclusive deal the Smithsonian Institution struck recently with the cable television network Showtime.

That deal angered Congress, which funds the Smithsonian, and also angered filmmakers who protested it was improper to require documentarians using Smithsonian materials to offer their work first to Showtime.

"We would never go into an exclusive deal with anybody," National Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper said yesterday. The goal of the Archives is to broaden, not restrict, access to its holdings, she said.

"The more you can make [the archives] accessible to the public the better for everyone it is," said Nina Gilden Seavey, an Emmy-winning filmmaker and director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University who protested the Smithsonian-Showtime arrangement.

"Ultimately, the accessibility of the collections and the maintenance of the collections has become such a huge burden on the federal government, the question is how to provide some sort of self-sustaining mechanism for use of these collections."

Stacey Hurwitz, a spokeswoman for CustomFlix, said the first six DVDs became available on Amazon July 16 and are already selling. She said they were newsreels from the late 1950s and early 1960s.

They include scenes of the famous 1959 "Kitchen Debate" between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a model American kitchen on display in Moscow. Other footage shows a youthful Fidel Castro after the communist revolution in Cuba, along with reports about Hawaii becoming a state, and the Soviet space program.

Hurwitz said the DVDs will sell for $19.99 and will be manufactured on customer demand at the company's facility in Scotts Valley, Calif. The Archives said they are part of its "Universal Newsreels," which date from 1920 to 1967.

Other newsreels that will become available later include coverage of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the end of World War II, and the famous 1960 televised debate between presidential candidates Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

Thousands of other public domain and government films will be made available later, the Archives said. In a separate pilot program, about 100 Archives films have also been made available free via Google, Cooper said.

Hurwitz and CustomFlix chief technical officer Darren Giles said the Archives is shipping original film and videotape to the company, where the footage is digitized and stored in servers. There it becomes data, and what Giles called "future proof." The originals are returned to the Archives.

Giles said the company was making "a significant investment" in the project, but declined to detail how profits would be shared.

Cooper said a major benefit to the Archives would be the digitized "preservation" copy that the company would provide the Archives of all the footage it processes.

The Archives said it has more than 200,000 documentaries, newsreels, instructional films, combat footage, and research and development films that amount to a sweeping visual history of the United States.

"Our initiative with CustomFlix Labs will reap major benefits for the public at large and for the National Archives," Allen Weinstein, archivist of the United States, said in a written statement. "While the public can come to our College Park, Md., research room to view films and even copy them at no charge, this new program will make our holdings much more accessible to millions of people who cannot travel to the Washington, D.C. area."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company