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Why Netflix sends 'Orange is the New Black' to the Library of Congress on videotape

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And why the library hopes that's going to change

After companies shut down and collectors lose interest, the Library of Congress is supposed to keep our cultural history intact. But digital media has turned our understanding of preservation on its head. It’s no longer enough to just get "a copy" of something: an ebook can be set to self-destruct, an MMO can be nothing without the people who play it, and a streaming video can have a million digital copies and no physical ones. When Buzzfeed journalist Joseph Bernstein profiled the Library of Congress’ video game collection, he included a tantalizing reference to how new media and traditional archival can collide:

The Library's processes are, by the standards of 21st century media consumption, antiquated. Netflix has to print special VHS copies of their streaming hits like Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards for copyright consideration.

It seemed too weird to be true. Does Netflix, a company that’s paved the way for online-only TV and super-high-definition video, really have to ship its material for long-term preservation on a storage medium that’s barely been relevant since the 1990s?

Netflix wasn’t able to provide The Verge with details of its submission process. As it turns out, though, the Library of Congress was as bemused as we were. Director of communications Gayle Osterberg told The Verge that Netflix isn’t submitting its shows on VHS, but it is sending some on tape — and the process is part of a long, complicated relationship between media producers, copyright registrars, and digital conservationists.

Netflix's submission process isn't so different to broadcast TV's

Netflix might stream its shows online instead of broadcasting them over cable, but its submission process is fairly normal, says Library of Congress Moving Image Section head Mike Mashon. Writers, musicians, filmmakers, and other artists regularly register their work with the US Copyright Office in order to make it easier to sue for infringement, and as part of the process, they send a copy — for video, a physical copy — that’s examined by registrars and then stored by the Library of Congress. It’s in studios’ interest to do it as quickly as possible, in whatever format is available, well before a show is pressed to Blu-ray and put on store shelves -- whether we’re talking about Netflix or traditional producers. "Two and a Half Men, I'm sure, is shot digitally, edited digitally, distributed digitally, and the only time it ever sees a hard copy [during its initial run] is when it's registered for copyright," says Mashon.

These physical copies aren’t the final storage method — they’re a way to get the file to the library, which then uploads them to its database. Netflix sends House of Cards on DVD-R, and Orange is the New Black comes on Betacam SP, a professional-level and far more successful successor to the Betamax — the Orange is the New Black tapes are slightly larger than VHS cassettes, but as seen above, they’re similar at a glance. Standard-definition Betacam and its high-resolution cousin HDCAM are used to make master copies of videos for distribution among broadcasters, and the library prefers them to DVDs and Blu-ray discs aimed at consumers.

Feature films are submitted in 35mm whenever possible, regardless of how they’re shot. But video, from major TV shows to home movies, comes in a variety of formats, and not always the ones that the library would like. "We really don't see that much VHS anymore; it's just not out there. Lots of DVDs and DVD-Rs," says Mashon, who admits he’s "not delighted" to get House of Cards — a show subscribers can watch in 4K ultra-high-definition — on a standard-definition disc. It’s especially galling because no matter how they’re submitted, they’re just headed for the data banks as soon as possible. Writing Orange is the New Black to a lower-resolution cassette means that a slightly substandard version will be the one that gets stored in perpetuity. The originals are kept as long as possible in case there are problems with the transfer to digital storage, although formats like DVD-R start to decay after a couple of years. The oldest tape, by contrast, is over half a century old: it’s a 1958 recording of President Dwight Eisenhower, the first known videotape recorded in color.

The library is 'not delighted' to get 'House of Cards' on a DVD-R

Today, asking TV studios to deliver digital files on potentially lower-quality tapes and discs instead of transmitting them directly is an awkward stopgap. Mashon says he’s nearing the end of a pilot program that allows studios to transfer files directly to the Library of Congress and the US Copyright Office. It makes sending the highest-quality version of a file easier, and relying less on physical storage could insulate the library from disasters like the Japanese tsunami of 2011, which shut down production of HDCAM cassettes and caused a temporary frenzy of hoarding and rationing in Hollywood. "We had copyright registrants calling us up and saying ‘Hey, we usually register on HDCAM, but we can’t get HDCAM stock anymore. Can we give you a DVD?’ And we had to say yes," says Mashon. "That’s one reason why we really got [the program] going pretty seriously." While he wouldn’t disclose the names of any partners, he said the library isn’t "terribly far away" from being able to launch it on a limited basis.

Until then, the Library of Congress owns a 21st-century streaming TV show in a format first released in 1986, with printed labels that look like they’re meant for a high-school A/V collection. For posterity, the fact that the Library of Congress is working off this instead of a direct, full-resolution copy of the show isn’t ideal. For now, to anyone not intimately familiar with the world of film, it’s like discovering an alternate cyberpunk continuum where streaming doesn’t exist, "Netflix" refers to a complex sneakernet of cassette-tape couriers, and Reed Hastings is probably fighting for faster access to bike lanes.