I don't have HBO -- I've got just enough cable to get decent network reception and to enjoy local cable access shows. And yet, having grown up in the New Orleans area, I was dying to see Spike Lee's documentary about post-Katrina New Orleans, When the Levees Broke, which aired on HBO late last month. I've been checking the HBO, Amazon, and Netflix websites to determine when a DVD might be released -- it seemed to me that if ever a day-and-date release was warranted, this would be it.

Last week, BoingBoing reported that someone had posted the documentary to YouTube in 26 parts. (The footage has since been removed.) Hollywood Reporter's Risky Biz Blog picked up the story and contacted HBO to find out when the four-hour documentary might be released on DVD. HBO couldn't provide a date because "there are lots of tricky rights and clearance issues with the movie." I don't understand this at all -- When the Levees Broke was shot within the past year, and surely any permissions would have been for DVD as well as for broadcast? Would HBO be short-sighted enough not to see the potential for DVD? I'm not paying for full cable and HBO just to watch a single movie, but I would buy this DVD in a heartbeat if it were available right now.

Risky Biz compares the problem (and the subsequent illegal downloads available on the Web) to the situation with the 1987 civil-rights documentary Eyes on the Prize, which isn't available on DVD because the rights expired and were too expensive to renew. Isn't it time to re-examine the fine points of copyright law and the way documentaries are affected? In the meantime, I suspect that many people will resort to finding internet downloads to watch otherwise-unavailable films like When the Levees Broke.