The new documentary "War Made Easy" isn't just a searing critique of how administrations over the past 40 years have manipulated the media to build support for war. The 72-minute film is a media provocation itself - a challenge to federal copyright laws.
Based on a 2005 book by Bay Area media critic Norman Solomon and narrated by actor Sean Penn, roughly 90 percent of "War Made Easy" consists of archival news footage from major television networks that would cost a ton of money to license - if the filmmakers had paid for all of it; they bought only about 60 percent from distributors.
The filmmakers say they are protected under the "fair use" provision of federal copyright law, a measure that is being tested in ways unimagined when it was codified 30 years ago.
The film arrives at a time when some major media companies are rethinking the value of their copyrighted material and how much of it they're willing to share with videomakers and documentarians like Solomon. While media giant Viacom is suing the online video-sharing site YouTube and its parent company Google for hosting clips to which Viacom holds copyright, other media companies are slowly loosening their hold as the gatekeepers of information.
Over the past few weeks, CNN, ABC and NBC have announced they will allow footage of the presidential debates that they broadcast to be used on other media platforms under certain conditions. For example, NBC requests that debate footage not be used for commercial purposes, that the network's moderators or journalists not be used in campaign advertising and that its logo be prominently displayed when a clip is used.
But while some of those provisions sound similar to what's in federal copyright law, what is fair use remains the subject of debate.
"The similarities in all this is that we're all feeling our way in the digital era in the area of fair use," said Patrick Ross, executive director of the newly formed Copyright Alliance, a Washington trade group whose supporters include movie studios, television networks and artists interested in preserving copyright protection.
The networks' decisions "are fantastic for anybody who has anything to say about the presidential race," said Anthony Falzone, executive director of the Fair Use Project at the Center for the Internet and Society at Stanford University. "What you're going to see in this election cycle is an explosion of people expressing themselves in different ways using video. This is going to get more people participating in the process."
After seeing how debate clips turned up on YouTube and blogs - and were mashed up into parodies - "the networks realized that you can either work with people or you can fight them," said Jason Schultz, an attorney specializing in intellectual property law at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
"This also shows the power of popular marketing on the Internet. How word-of-mouth spread online is being recognized as a legitimate marketing tool," Schultz said.
But the networks' generosity with political debate coverage doesn't extend to their entertainment content, where the big money is made.
Recently, unaired pilot episodes of new series like NBC's remake of "Bionic Woman" and CW's "The Reaper" found their way online through several video-sharing sites. Some in the television industry whispered that the networks had intentionally leaked the episodes to generate buzz for their new shows before they premiered on TV. Networks representatives vehemently deny doing so.
An ABC executive said his network wouldn't leak a show online because it wouldn't want to risk losing any viewers who might tune into the show's broadcast premiere. The network, like others, doles out bits of its entertainment programming on its online site and on other platforms with the goal of luring audiences to its broadcasts - where ratings are measured and advertising dollars are made.
"I look at (sampling content for free online) in the same way that I see Coca-Cola sampling its product," said Michael Benson, executive vice president of advertising, marketing and promotion at ABC Entertainment. "You give people a taste. You don't give them a whole six-pack."
Political programming is a different, less profitable, beast. Most presidential debates don't draw the audience that a network entertainment show does - even for the show's repeats.
Free content is being pitched as a civic offering, as CNN announced May 7: "The presidential debates are an integral part of our system of government, in which the American people have the opportunity to make informed choices about who will serve them. We believe this is good for the country and good for the electoral process."
In recent weeks, other networks - including NBC and ABC - have changed their policies to allow use of footage from the presidential debates. NBC's policy went into effect after last week's AFL-CIO debate in Chicago, which was broadcast on MSNBC.
Getting the networks to release their debate footage is a rare example of bipartisan media organizing; liberal organizations like MoveOn.org and conservative commentators like Michelle Malkin joined forces to pressure the networks.
"We know that people are going to do it. This just legitimizes it," said Mike Krempasky, a conservative who founded RedStateblogs.com.
But industry advocate Ross doesn't think this will lead to the networks releasing more entertainment programs online.
"You don't see NBC-Universal releasing 'The Bourne Ultimatum' for free online because there is still a tremendous amount of value in that," Ross said. "I'm not clear how much value there is in a political debate as the campaign wears on."
Solomon, a media critic who has written 12 books, was dubious about the value of the debate footage, which he described as containing "an overdose of rhetoric and fogging language. What we are sharing with the public are the political equivalent of cooked books," he said.
Even so, not every network is on board with sharing. CBS, which isn't scheduled to broadcast a presidential debate until December, declined to comment on its plans. Fox News has no plans to offer unlimited use of its debate content.
"That, to me, is giving up too much control to somebody who didn't create the content and who can then turn around and monetize it," said Chris Silvestri, vice president of legal and business affairs at Fox News.
Silvestri hadn't seen Solomon's film, which uses content from Fox and the other major networks, nor had any other network representatives that were contacted. The question of whether to pursue legal action against a documentary "is always tricky in a fair-use case," Silvestri said. If just a few seconds of clips are used in a larger, "transformative" way, as the law states, then that's generally OK.
"But if more than that are used, that's when it gets harder. Do you fight the fight? Or do you let something like this go? Every case is different," he said. He invites documentarians to use whatever they think they can, "but they'd better be prepared to defend what they use in court."
The financial considerations of fair-use law can be even murkier.
While "War Made Easy" was made by a nonprofit company, federal law prohibits the use of copyrighted material for commercial purposes. The film's national theatrical premiere will be Aug. 24 at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco.
"The film is definitely a challenge to the fair-use laws," said "War Made Easy" producer and co-writer Loretta Alper. "But we think we are on solid legal ground. This is criticism, and you can't do criticism without showing what you're criticizing."
And there's plenty of criticism in "War Made Easy." It includes the 1968 clip of a commentary by iconic CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, a piece long-lauded for turning public opinion against the Vietnam War.
But it also shows a CBS news segment from 1965 when Cronkite accompanied U.S armed service personnel in Vietnam on a bombing mission near Da Nang. After his in-flight description of how the plane detonated its bombs on those below, Cronkite steps out of the plane, turns to a crew member and says, "Well, Colonel, it's a great way to go to war."
Some in audience groaned at the scene at a recent screening of the film at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland.
Solomon describes Cronkite's comment as part of a continuing legacy of the media "idolizing" the military during war. "You need to have the clips to show that in a continuum," Solomon said.
And after a lifetime as a print journalist and author, Solomon has discovered "the visceral thrill" of video. Provided there are no lawsuits involved.
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.