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The YouTube Presidential Debates?

UPDATED:* It was just 10 years ago that presidential candidates first put up Web sites, marking the Internet's first major footprint on electoral politics.

Four years later, candidates found a gold mine in online campaign contributions. In the most recent presidential campaign cycle, bloggers found voice and influence in the process.

So what will 2008 bring? How about free Internet video footage of the presidential debates? The entire debates to be used as wished, copyright free.

The video would be free for anyone to access, edit and share with others with proper attribution. It could be sliced and diced, reused and blogged repeatedly with no fears of legal repercussions from the copyright cops. It would be a YouTube political bonanza. It would be a good thing.

It's exactly what a new heavyweight online alliance, as yet unnamed and led by Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, launched this week seeks to accomplish.

In a letter to the Democratic and Republican National Committees, the alliance asked the parties to place all debate footage in the public domain or be made available under a Creative Commons license.

The letter boasts 75 signatories, including advocates of every political stripe from MoveOn.org to RedState.org. Liberal Ariana Huffington signed the letter, as did outspoken conservative Michelle Malkin. Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales are for it.

"Technology has exploded the opportunity for people to comment upon and spread political speech. Democracy is all about encouraging citizens to participate in that debate," Lessig wrote on his blog. "And all of us, whether Democrats or Republicans, should push to remove unnecessary burdens to that participation."

The unnecessary burdens in this case are the television and cable networks that air the debates and retain exclusive rights to the footage.

"I've been surprised by the opposition from the networks. They are very restrictive of the footage," Lessig said in a telephone interview from Berlin, where he is on sabbatical.

The alliance wants the Democrats and Republicans to force the networks to make video publicly available as part of any deal to broadcast the debates. Lessig said the Democrats have taken his calls, but the Republicans have not. Make of that what you will. The networks are not returning calls either to the media or the alliance. You know what to make of that.

Sen. Barack Obama was the first candidate to jump on the free debate video bandwagon. In a letter to DNC Chairman John Dean, Obama wrote the Internet has allowed an "extraordinary range of citizens to participate" in political dialogue about the upcoming election. "We, as a Party, should do everything that we can to encourage this participation," Obama wrote.

John Edwards quickly shouted "Me, too!"

"Commercial constraints are severe enough in their effect in diluting the substance of our campaigns. Limiting access to long-form televised debates makes matters worse," Edwards wrote on his campaign site.

C-SPAN has already paved this road, albeit in a muddled fashion. In February, Republicans complained House Speaker Nancy Pelosi violated C-SPAN's copyright by using footage from the channel on her blog. C-SPAN first said Pelosi had not, then said that she had and finally changed its policy.

"Although C-SPAN is the only news media organization that regularly televises the legislative proceedings of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, it does not hold a copyright in that video coverage," the new C-SPAN policy states. "Government-produced video is in the public domain which means that it belongs to the American people and may be used without restrictions of any kind."

C-SPAN now permits non-commercial use of its video so long as C-SPAN is identified as the source during the use of the video. Keeping a C-SPAN logo on the screen is sufficient to identify the source. Video bloggers, go for it. YouTube, buy some more bandwidth, you're going to need it.

Cable fees finance C-SPAN. The broadcast networks live on advertising dollars. In fairness to the networks, it should be noted, the issue was never a factor in previous presidential campaigns.

"There was no widespread forum for regular people to share video content even if they wanted to," Lessig said.

Now the public has multiple platforms to share video content and the facts are overwhelmingly obvious the public wants to use those platforms. Just five months ago, Google was so convinced of this it paid $1.65 billion to acquire YouTube.

"In the age of online video sharing, corporations retaining exclusive rights to debate footage is an obvious barrier to democratic participation," the alliance wrote its letter to the two parties. "No concerned voter should ever be labeled a lawbreaker for wanting to share video of a presidential debate with others."

Both political parties are currently engaged in negotiations with the networks over airing the political debates. It will be interesting to see if the parties exert their muscle to demand the networks make the video publicly available.

"We are already exploring ways to make the DNC sanctioned debates more accessible and will continue to work on this and other issues in our discussions with the networks," Stacie Paxton, DNC press secretary," said in an e-mail statement.

Even more interesting would be Obama or Edwards or any other candidate refusing to participate in debates where the video is not available to everyone.

Now that would be an Internet footprint on 2008.

*Corrects funding source of C-SPAN.

Roy Mark is senior editor and Washington bureau chief of internetnews.com.