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The BBC Will Open Source Its Program Archive

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BBC’s Creative Archive Event: 29 October 04

Sometimes a really great notion.

Last night I went to a meeting to find out more about one of the most exciting ideas I have heard in a long time. The BBC is planning to open source its back catalog, under a non-commercial license, in order to foster British creativity by give something back to the nation. UK nationals (more on this later) will theoretically then be able to rip, and burn and edit to their hearts content, sharing the resulting media cultural collages for non-commercial use. Or they can just watch their favorite old shows whenever they want.

The BBC was originally founded on a mission to “entertain, educate and inform” and the Creative Archive is a worthy grandchild of that original vision. It turns out the BBC is using the same triplet today.

If you in are not based in the UK you may know the Beeb makes some good programs. But you may not know the British pay for the BBC through an annual TV license fee–kind of like a tax for public broadcasting. Until recently it was two stations and five radio, but now the digital revolution has led more digital channels too (BBC3 – “youth”, BBC4-arts, and a bunch of digital radio stations including dedicated Asian Network and 1Xtra, a black music station). The context is to help you see where Auntie is coming from.

With respect to context its also important to understand the BBC’s charter is up for renewal this year. It is in the midst of a corporate governance overhaul (Iraq partly, the sex-up affair) it also has to argue its case to the nation and more pertinently the current administration and the media and communications uber-regulator ofcom for ongoing funding and independence under Royal Charter. So why not be truly revolutionary in an age of change and go with the spirit of the commons.

Luminaries of openness such as Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow are lending support to the project. In fact Cory was there last night–it was cool to meet him face to face.

It seems like the BBC is creating its own stars of Open though–Paula Le Dieu, Joint Director of the BBC’s Creative Archive project is smart, patient, funny and a great communicator. She gave a speech in London Television Center explaining what Auntie’s Archive might mean to the nation. I didn’t exactly transcribe it but I took plenty of notes–below – should be mostly Paula’s own words. Apologies for errors. ( so much for my last post about the problem of multimedia content versus text for information firehose drinking… who is going to do the transcription?)

To understand the future of metadata the story below about the Archeological Society in the Q&A below explains a lot.

I am looking forward to the full transcript, with links to some examples of the kind of thing Paula hopes folks might do – i found some below. Unfortunately the projector wasn’t working but Paula did a good job of explaining some fairly left field concepts to a mixed bag of an audience. Many were civilians (not blogosphere types, with the exception of the aforementioned Cory, I guy who I think introduced himself as Dave from NTK [and if the link fits…] and a few others…). Some journalists (including Frazer Lovatt who seems to who have done a better job of covering the event than me…), a film maker, a music rights Big Media chap, and so on. There was also one charming woman who had made BBC light entertainment programs for years, very smart, white-haired, did she have an alice band too?, who explained that rights management issues would restrict archiving to a very limited set of programs–she reckoned it would be almost impracticable to get rights holders to agree-or even to know who actually has rights on what.

From my perspective the ONLY way rights holders will ever make money on this content is to pursue this approach. You can’t pay, or charge, for something you don’t know exists. Mouldering tape does no one any good. The BBC is going 100% digital anyway and it can’t afford to index its own content. So why not the nation? Why not professional taxonomers? In order to make good use of the archive-it needs to encourage a policy of view source. Mr Shirky explains

As Paula said the alternative is to try and find a spot on the schedule for this programming. 68 years worth…?
“Some material in the archive already has a commercial life – I am rapt about that. but I am worried about stuff I have never seen – never will do – it wont make it out of the BBC.”

Someone in the audience asked whether the BBC was making a hard choice – would it become a no go zone for international artists? I tend to think the opposite is true. Music artists won’t stop going on Top Of The Pops and Radio 1. To do so would be commercial suicide by the artist. And the fact is the BBC is emphatically not condoing content theft. The CreativeCommons license makes that clear. As soon as someone wanted to use some content commercially they would have to pay the rights holder… sounds like a good business model to me.

As the world of linking is showing at the moment being open pays. or rather not being open is the quickest route to being left out of the conversation. The WSJ is currently struggling with the issue. The NY Times allows linking but it is supported by advertising, not a subscription model…

The only way the BBC can extract the maximum value out of the archive is to get the nation to index it, and then let people if they want to reproduce materially commercially, once licensing rights have been sorted out.

Could this be an industry in future as big as gaming? One thing is for sure, the British are an extraordinarily creative bunch and they are hopefully going to be handed the most wonderful addition to the already rich cultural heritage of the nation. Is that too many superlatives? If the sizeable licensing hurdles are correctly managed then the BBC could just tip the point when it comes to new social networks and commercial models based on sharing and splicing intellectual property. No DRM? Hear that Microsoft and RIAA and Rupert Murdoch? Scary for some. Expect lobbyists to emerge to fight back.

One of the biggest questions in my mind is the notion of a licensing virtual national border. can this licensing model really work? Wont we want to share our works with our blog neighbours, or couple of degrees of separation, whether they are in Tokyo or San Francisco? Its an amazing test case for trust versus DRM. But also for modren notions of national and geographical identity. I wonder if some artists will consider moving to Britain just because they want to play? This is a very modern push back against globalization. Localization in action.

The BBC is showing some important thinking on the future of business, nationhood, creativity and even making money too, through sharing not locking down. Ready to share out some national treasure? Good show.


In 1982 the BBC released a personal computer in conjunction with Acorn. When the BBC eventually withdrew it from the market – it wasn’t clear what it had done, the true impact it had.

The BBC Micro was designed to be open at every level. You could hack the hardware, software, and applications. Games too. Years later and the UK games industry is now number 3 in the world, behind Japan and America, disproportionate for its size. A link?

So PCs were tools for creativity and innovation. What happened in those years – what did these people do? They began to communicate with each other.

Their next grand vision- was ordinary. We want to share, point out–use this material. On the web we have a lot more mates and don’t need to go to the pub to start the conversation.

In the game the Sims – 90% of the assets generated by the players. By assets I mean the furniture, etc, even the pets.

The Free and Open source software movement is building software. Linux is an operating system that competes with Windows.

The BBC has a document Building Public Value. A store of value that spans media and platform. The idea is that this project evolves into a dialogue – with active inspired participants. The would lead to the creation of significant public value. Active participants encouraging reuse.

Creative Archive is a BBC led initiative to digitize and publish material – uk public can reuse. Mix and share “their BBC” – creative process.

1.5m artifacts of film and video – 600k hours video.

“That’s 68 years of consecutive viewing if you fancy a night in”.

When the BBC had to go digital it made life much more difficult and expensive. Navigating the trickier parts – distribution? Could we afford to distribute the content? How could we afford the bandwidth bills? “Could we only do this in belief it would be unpopular…” 😉

We realized with peer to peer we could make the audience not just creative, but distribution partners.

Rights are waived. The license is based on the work of CreativeCommons.org. The License will be heavily indebted to cc – ported to UK jurisdiction. We wanted to make sure the CA and CC licenses interoperate.

We will require attribution – who contributed to a derivative work. Non commercial purposes. New work. Only licensed to use within the UK.

We at first wondered whether to use technology, digital rights management to try and ensure the license terms were adhered to. But we realized it wouldn’t work

Metaphor of business envelopes–where you can look through the plastic window. We wanted to encourage people to open the envelope.

The BBC is focused on universal access, non encryption etc.

We have 500k audio recordings.

But what about the the creation of metadata – the BBC digital archive. Name it to find it.

Would you only be able to see Is the program funny? When you’re actually looking for something that looks at the differences between English spoken in Australia and in England”

The audience as our semantic partners–attach meaning that makes sense to out audience, them and their creative partners.

Rights–the archive is not wholly owned by the BBC – it’s a rich complex ecology of rights. In order to succeed we, the media industry, need to understand how to negotiate a path such that the dusty archive sees the light of day as quickly as possible

The BBC would take a leadership role. A BBC-led public service initiative.

Case studies – where it doesn’t work, where we fail, but also where it does work – so other archives also offer access.

You can Upload photos. From your mobile phone. Storage – interface for looking, but all through CC license.

For someone like me who is not a gifted artist – photos aren’t gifted. As – make me feel creative because it lets me show my playlist. Playlists as art.

Starwars Galaxy
Music and everything else. People all over the world – choreography and music – training their pets on choreography. Then come together to get pets to perform this choreography. And some designated people can record the performance. Music video, choreographed, dancing pets

The Creative Archive– don’t know how the public will use it.

Simon Perry from Digital Lifestyles moderated the Q&A session.

Paula: We want people to be “Prosumers” of content

[Paula used the example of the online photo service flickr – “when someone else comes along and labels your photos of a recent trip to Hamburg with colours”. Why? It turned out this other flickr user was building meta images using a palette of colours represented by photos. If the picture was mainly sky it was “blue”.

Greg dyke as sponsor. We had some tremulous months. Then mark joined-a huge fan. A much bigger vision – inclusion of full programs rather than just excerpts. Thinking 18month pilot.

Q: File formats?
A: Open! File formats are only fashionable for so long. we have learned from archive.org – Bruce de kael – he estimates 2 years for a format. We will support three proprietary formats and 1 open. We’ll Look at marketplace.

Q: Software provided by the archive?
A: No – there is a lot out there. The BBC doesn’t plan to go into the software business.

Q: Create a Website, an environment for content editing for the CA?
A: BBC.co.uk – video nation is already there. Why not creative archive as part of that. or the oneminute films section.

Q: The license stipulates content can only be used within the UK?
A: The BBC is paid for by UK citizens. Remit to serve that audience. How does the BBC think about itself? Does that translate to new media? How does the BBC conceive of itself? When regional footprints don’t make quite as much sense.

Q: Rights? Who owns them?
A: Artists, writers and designers. Check with those people.

Q: What is the budget for the CA?
A: We have focused on audiences. A staff of 5 people. encoding – term of the pilot. Look at Building Public Value page 1.

Q: Will the BBC build a peer to peer mechanism?
A: Why not something like Bit torrent, perhaps with something like IMP internet media player. Network PVR. Radio player for TV. This is all about the long tail of consumption.

Q: Can the BBC – which for so long has held content tightly to its chest– become open?
Culture pervades an org. Can the culture changed hell for leather to open source?
A: Take a look at the document – a very different BBC – BBC that recognizes the need for public value. Its the opposite of Rupert Murdoch. He is selling stuff where you have to look through the window…

Q: How can we help.
A: You are doing take part

Q: I am a filmmaker – The license – attribution, share alike, non commercial… I make films. What if I made a film using CA content and then had the opportunity to show it on channel4, why couldn’t I do that?
A: Well if Channel 4 says – hey we love it… then you know here are the rights owners–X,Y and Z, and channel 4 can pay for it.

Q: What content – will it only be stuff that doesn’t make it into programs. Well organized?
A: With Greg Dyke we were only looking at putting excerpts in the archive. When Mark came in it became whole shows.

Q: If you don’t have the rights the archive will be unbalanced. Drama music comedy variety. A small clip. Light entertainment. “The BBC usually only had two years rights.”
A: You’re right and that is why archiving will probably happen first in a factual area, such as the natural history unit. Initially in the factual area.

I used to say its because barn owls don’t have agents

But Lassie, as someone pointed out, has an agent.
The rich ecology of rights ownership is quite extraordinary. The index.

The conversation has to start. Like it or not our audiences are using this material already. Conceiving it in unplanned ways. The CA is a way to identify how this plays out.

Q: Will the BBC ensure that content today is immediately compatible?
A: yes – but it will be a long journey, we’ll start with boilerplates–the language will be in those contracts.

Q: What about rights attribution and the question of trusted metadata?
A: Understand whether we can galvanize the power of “outside the BBC” to understand the rights landscape.

Metadata – the first tranche – the first day we announced it The Archeological Society contacted us and said they know more about our content than we do – it is already indexed and filed. They are a perfect group of folks. A community.

Allow our audiences–some of which are highly skilled organizations, to interact more effectively with us.

Layered meta data – peer review. Slashdot –

There is nothing wrong with being highly rebellious and just listen to it.

Q: I deal with rights owners – hard to deal. Piracy and deregulatory treatment.
A: The audience shouted him down…. 😉

Q: conduit for piracy> p2p distribution techs – kazaa and bit torrent. Do not facilitate piracy. They are technologies. They are neutral. And will solve the distribution problems
A: NOT piracy. We have paid for it already. The BBC as a public service org is ideally placed.

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