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Home > Media

The BBC Creative Archive: what the Internet was invented for

25 August 2003

Greg Dyke's announcement that the BBC is to make the "treasure trove of BBC content available to all" [ shortish report | longish speech ] is going to make a few businessmen very worried and everyone else very happy.

This is how interactivity used to work
old-skool interactivity

Tomorrow's 'papers don't quite seem up on how sensational this is. Sensational (exciting) if one's immediate vision of an archive of eighty years of broadcasting comes to be; sensational (provocative) even if it's a small fraction. Because if ever the licence fee were justified, or the starry-eyed internet advocates validated, it's now. Assuming it all works.

Let's recall what the BBC does. We pay a fee, which used to be for radio, and is now for TV, for it to inform and entertain us, largely in the media of TV and radio. Some of that content lends itself to other forms (the news can be put online); some of it merits online support (e.g. the TOTP2 quizzes) and some of its public service remit is best served by generating original online content (like some of their Learning For Adults services).

So we've paid for this. And it used to be difficult to give us access to it. We've all heard the painful stories of archives being recorded over to save on tapes. Programmes can be repeated, but there are only so many channels. And you can make videos and DVDs, but these are costly to make, and so costly to buy.

But, as Dyke acknowledges, the technology has changed. The BBC doesn't need to keep adding to huge bunkers of Digibeta cassettes. And you don't have to distribute a physical copy of old episodes of ITMA - Grandpa can go and have that nice young lady burn off a CD for him in the library.

For commercial organisations, such scarcity is a good thing, because it makes it easier to control and charge for the content. But in the case of the BBC, the content's already made 'n' paid. We just need to get it as cheaply and easily as possible.

In fact, the terrible sins of the internet - allowing users to share information whenever they fancy without the owner's consent - are all entirely germane here, since, as Dyke puts it, "it's not really [the BBC's] content - the people of Britain have paid for it and our role should be to help them use it."

And all the measures that, say, record companies are trying to enforce in order to hinder this are suboptimal. Because they cost. Which makes the idea of some clumsy Digital Rights Management (e.g. only letting you play a clip once) entirely inappropriate here: it takes effort to constrain information, which you don't want to be constraining anyway. Presumably this is why even in his vague outline, Dyke spoke of "a simple licensing system" (not to mention the complex rights that will already exist within many programmes).

The constraints that remain are more modern.

Dick Barton will ride these roads

Above is a map of the BBC's "internet network". Imagine the hammering that sucker's going to be taking. An obvious solution will surely emerge: peer networks will spread these data that need to spread. The idea is that people get to see this stuff, anyway. (For one, I would gladly pay the BBC a micropayment of ten pee or so every time I downloaded, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. And I'd only do so if the programmes were encoded in a decent format. If they stick with RealPlayer, the jig's up. Presumably the format will keep changing as the technology improves, so again, let's leave that for the mo.)

Except, except. So far, we've only mentioned the benefits to the licence payer and citizen. We haven't considered the BBC's "commercial rivals". Tony Ball of Sky took the time this week to tell the Edinburgh TV Festival about his clever proposals whereby the state forces the BBC to sell EastEnders, Casualty and Have I Got News For You? to its rivals, and stops the BBC buying 24 and other popular foreign programmes. And the laughter had barely died down before the BBC suggested that it makes its programmes -- which are better than Poor Tony's anyway -- even more freely available to those that have paid for them. Well, it's not fair. What chance does Loaded in Ibiza face then? It's not fair.

Simultaneously, we learn that the Culture Secretary has ordered a review of the BBC's internet activities, wary of its impact on the "commercial online market" (what kind of distinction is this?). There shouldn't be too much to be scared of in general: for a start, 80% of the 7.6bn "internet market" is e-commerce, in which the Beeb plays no rôle. But we'll see what inquisitor Philip Graf (who brought us the failed ISP ic24) has to say.

So what about if, say, Sky, wanted to offer paid downloads of Denise van Outen's Prickly Heat, or The Villa? Well, what about it? Is that so important that we need to hobble this bizarre but brilliant situation - where a licence that was originally for one-off wireless broadcasts now means we can watch old Play for Todays and Match of the Days on demand? Sure, the BBC didn't have to compete in a cut-throat market to make these shows, but people won't want to watch them because they're free, or because they've already paid for them: they'll want to watch them because they're good.

We've paid for this stuff so that we can watch it. Old technology meant its scarcity, from which Sky et al. have benefited. But that doesn't mean we artificially impose scarcity now in order to maintain that benefit. If you want to make some money, then get out of the way, old man.

Good evening, Napster.

Moving on to more serious concerns, the licence will undoubtedly forbid commercial reproduction of the work.

One idea challenged by the possibilities of BBC Creative Archive is a gut feeling some people have developed whereby if you can charge for something, you should, not to pay for it (it's been paid for, and reproduction costs are infinitesimal online), but because you must leverage your advantage.

It's clearly proper when museums make their content available, as does the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television. And it doesn't jar when the BBC makes all its old, paid-for news available, or a selection of its radio at Listen Again. But when there's the possibility of it involving showbusiness - or massive amounts - it seems counterintuitive not to force payment even when scarcity doesn't demand it.

But it's not like the BBC will never sell another DVD. Would I still pony up for a single, pretty package, at much-better quality, with documentation and extras of, say, The Adventure Game? In a heartbeat.

Drawrof-gniknihty Rev

And so one inevitable niggle remains: if you can get to BBC programmes using the web, doesn't this mean that folk who have never paid a licence fee still get to watch them? In short: yes, it does. So why, you might ask, should you have to pay, when the Germans and the Canadians can get the same stuff for free? In short again: this is because it's the British Broadcasting Corporation. The Office is about British working life. Panorama tackles news from a British perspective. We get more out of it. And for one, I'm proud of it.

And if a schoolgirl in Iowa wants to watch some Roobarb? I say, let her. Because she's leaving behind as much and as good. Again: it's already paid for. We lose nothing.

Avast! Pirates!

And in this way the BBC Creative Archive goes straight to the heart of some of the crucial ways in which our notions of property are reliant on the technology. There's more on this at Oblomovka [rss], where Danny O'Brien suggests that the Archive may have drawn its name from the fine input of intellectual property lawyer Lawrence Lessig [rss]*. Well, the technology has changed. And I'm ready. I'm paid up, there's plenty I want to see, and I want the moon on a stick. Failing that, the largest and best freely-available audio-visual archive known to humanity.

* elaborated on by Brewster Kahle of Paul's beloved Wayback Machine.


Three caveats:

  • It's worth remembering right now that it won't be everything (and what there will be will take years). TalkBack made The Day Today. There will be no pop videos in any Swap Shops that might appear. And so there will be tears before bedtime when we don't get the moon on a stick. But then you will be able to find that time your Mum was on the local news.

  • There's no watershed on the web. Nor can we impose one.

  • The biggest drain on the BBC's servers and routers will obviously be Dr. Who, Red Dwarf and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. So I would suggest Mr. Dyke chooses not to make these available to the Creative Archive.

bring the changes

Let me explain with an easy example.

Just imagine your child comes home from school with homework to make a presentation to the class on lions, or dinosaurs, or Argentina or on the industrial revolution.

He or she goes to the nearest broadband connection - in the library, the school or even at home - and logs onto the BBC library.

They search for real moving pictures which would turn their project into an exciting multi-media presentation.

They download them and, hey presto, they are able to use the BBC material in their presentation for free.

Now that is a dream which we will soon be able to turn into reality.

We intend to allow parts of our programmes, where we own the rights, to be available to anyone in the UK to download so long as they don't use them for commercial purposes.

Under a simple licensing system, we will allow users to adapt BBC content for their own use.

We are calling this the BBC Creative Archive.

When complete, the BBC will have taken a massive step forward in opening our content to all - be they young or old, rich or poor.

--Greg Dyke

I sat on the floor and watched TV
Thanking Christ for the BBC

--Shane MacGowan

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