Redefining ‘Public Service’ at BBCi

Azeem thinks we should try to apply open source thinking to the BBC. He thinks the Beeb’s online content and code should be freely published under the GPL – the radical constitution of the copyleft movement. The effect of this – if it worked – would be to bring into being a thriving new ‘creative commons’ downstream of the beeb, built on the BBC’s stock of content and application logic. This might just be the boost that UK Online needs to beat the bust and overcome the natural pessimism produced by nearly three years of market misery. More important, it might also represent the first serious attempt to update the definition of ‘public service’ for the networked era.

So why is this interesting? Isn’t open source just a geek fad? Actually, I think it might help us advance the debate about the BBC in the digital era. Arguments about the BBC’s role – the charter, the license fee, public service vs ratings etc. – are especially dry and boring these days. With Dyke in charge, Labour in power and OfCom barred from regulating the Beeb directly, the corporation is more-or-less bulletproof. Even Rupert Murdoch’s ‘untouchable‘ outburst struck a plaintive note. Open source might short-circuit these old-world arguments and help us get a productive argument about public service in the twenty-first century going again.

Azeem’s idea is focused not on ownership (privatise it, usually – yawn) or on output (cut it back to an explicitly public service core, privatise the rest – double yawn) but on creation. By promising to stimulate the online creative economy in the middle of the nastiest crash in recent history, an Open Source BBCi might bring to life a whole new ecosystem – like the independent TV production sector that rallied around the new Channel 4 in the eighties. If it works, we’ll have ourselves a useful model for the redefinition of public service in other areas of the Beeb’s output and perhaps for Government investment in interactivity – ‘Broadband Britain’, UK Online and so on – in general.


  1. I agree the arguments are fascinating. But does this mean we’d end up with a great deal of BBC-sourced content creating more sites which can’t sell advertising, and can’t sell content, because it isn’t their’s to sell?

  2. It’s bad enough now, listening to companies who are just plain bad at business whine about how unfair it is that the BBC is ‘in competition’ with them. (They’d whine a lot louder if the BBC started selling advertising too.)

    Now the same outfits get what effectively amounts to public subsidy because they blew their VC money?

    And as a UK license-fee payer I’d be subsidising commercial organisations across the entire planet, who paid back not a penny to the cost of the content’s production?

    Stuff that.

    Code, on the other hand – maybe. But on balance, I’d prefer the Beeb to make more use of non-bespoke GPL software and cut back on its own costs, than to have them spending the same astounding amounts as now on bespoke solutions, then dumping them documentation-free onto Sourceforge…

  3. I like this idea a lot.

    GPL is a 2-way street however. I could only support BPL if it ensured that if another party modifies the BBC’s copy or copies of the Code or Content or any portion of it, thus forming a work based on the Code or Content, that party must copy and distribute such modifications or work under the terms of the general GPL.

    In other words, the BBC would be able to incoporate the 3rd party’s work derived from the BBC, under BPL.

    Azeem should make this point explicitly. This is a fundamental principal of GPL, and would be *the* tangible benefit to the BBC and license payers.

    If not, I would resist BPL.

    I’ve asked Azeem to clarify.

    BTW, this would also negate Mike’s concern, as if the other party was ‘commercial’ it would have to consider the concequences, non?

    Alex Barnett.

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