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.