The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) today (July 30) announced a partnership with Amazon and its CustomFlix subsidiary to make key public domain films from its collection available on DVD. The DVDs are produced on demand by CustomFlix.
Here's the Washington Post's article, and here's a selection of discs already available. NARA's press release is here.
Unlike the infamous Smithsonian-Showtime deal, this agreement is nonexclusive, and the terms (which, unlike Smithsonian-Showtime, will be based on publicly released principles) have been more carefully crafted so as not to sacrifice public benefit to private gain. I've been told the agreement is publicly releasable, have submitted a FOIA request, and will post here when it's available.
NARA is probably the biggest repository of public domain film and video in the world, with hundreds of thousands of Federal government-produced items, almost all legally exempt from copyright. In addition to government works, it holds a large collection of donated materials, many of which have been placed in the public domain by their donors. These include the Universal Newsreel collection (1929-1967), the only one of six major U.S. newsreel collections that is unencumbered by copyright or contract, and outtakes from the March of Time (1935-1951), the "caviar" of American newsreels. You can watch these for free, but you need to visit NARA's research room in College Park, Md. You can also order broadcast-quality copies, but you can only do so through NARA's official contractors. Some companies sell copies of NARA's public domain material, often poor-quality dupes lacking program notes or contextualization. Others, such as FootageFarm, have invested much time and money creating detailed shotlists and other metadata. Google Video put 101 NARA films online in 2006, but this project doesn't seem to have progressed beyond the initial announcement.
The U.S. is alone among nations in making such a large collection of government-produced audiovisual material freely available. We hope that future partnerships will continue this tradition of public access, and hopefully bring reusable, high-quality digitized video material online so that emerging generations and communities can interpret American history and culture in their own ways.