Freeing content at the BBC

I had a bit of a whinge over at Speechification earlier on about the BBC’s content archiving policy. I find it frustrating to say the least that Heather Couper’s epic history of astronomy, Cosmic Quest, which has been running on Radio 4 since May, will now be withdrawn from the public domain all together.

The BBC’s standard line here—and it’s not an unreasonable one—is that the Corporation can only afford to buy ‘first run’ or otherwise limited rights to shows like Cosmic Quest and that if it was obliged to pay for ‘in perpetuity’ rights the additional cost would block the purchase of other good stuff and thus ultimately limit the choice provided to licence-fee payers.

This is undoubtedly true but also defeatist and essentially an inadequate response to the changing imperatives of the network era. The BBC needs to be braver and more committed to change. Here are a few things that could and should be done to unlock more good content for public use:

The BBC should free access to content that has limited (or zero) secondary value. That’s not to say content that’s no good: just stuff that can’t easily be sold on or exploited after it’s been transmitted. Lionel Kellaway’s brilliant Radio 4 programme about Rooks (a favourite of mine) is an asset of great beauty and immeasurable value to its listeners but, let’s face it, hardly any value in an open marketplace for audio content.

The BBC should be a rights innovator: hybrid methods of preserving public access to assets and commercial value to creators and license-holders should be developed and tested on real content. Not easy and not possible without compromise on both sides but the Corporation is uniquely placed to drive innovation that’s beneficial to UK licence fee-payers.

The BBC should be a copyright activist. Legislators should be lobbied to help redesign copyright law to preserve access to orphaned assets: content that’s not being exploited but can’t be freed because it still has a nominal owner. The Corporation should fund work to design use-it-or-lose-it laws and other innovative devices that emphasise access and public benefit over predatory and unfair protection.

The BBC should set targets for freeing content. By defining and prioritising categories of assets that should be freed, the BBC could drive the accumulation of a big pool of useful material held in the public domain permanently. Announcing in advance that certain content categories—perhaps whole channels or strands—are in future going to be purchased for permanent public access would encourage creators to get on with it and adjust their pricing and commercial terms for the new climate.

The goal should be to define and then grow the pool of free-to-use, public domain content archived at and not to apologise for the inflexibility and intransigence of rights-holders and exploiters. The potential gain for UK Plc and UK citizens could be enormous. The “there’s nothing we can do about it , guv” response must be made a thing of the past.


  1. If Heather Couper isn’t prepared to assign the right rights (if you see what I mean) then the BBC should get someone else to front the programme instead. They are pandering to their production company mates instead of standing up for Joe Licencepayer.

    If Artist A wants tons of extra money for doing something, then instead of giving it to them because you were at Oxford together, tell them to bugger off and get Artist B instead. There’s plenty of talent out there, dying to get on the BBC.

  2. Steve,

    This is along the lines of the issue I was raising at the BBC/TechCrunch debate – but you’re looking at it from the perspective of freeing the content they have broadcast, whereas I was approaching it from an angle of new content which would automatically be ingested into the BBC free of the existing restrictive rights model.

    If you wish to use the current content for which they have rights agreements in place or the archive content – then the BBC has no chance of being a rights innovator or a copyright activist – which automatically has the knock on effect of giving them no leeway in freeing the content. Tom Loosemore, one of the panel at the BBC/TechCrunch debate has the scars to prove how difficult this is and Tony Ageh, another of the panel, is currently mired in the joys of finding a solution for the archive.

    See the snippets of a much longer – but currently untraceable on the BBC site – interview with Simon Hayward-Tapp on the BBC Archive website for a glimpse into the world of archives and rights.

    The BBC has the will to do the right thing but it would be sued out of existence by the rights holders if it tried to be too radical. One of my suggestions to Tony Ageh is to mimic the accepted practice of the BBC News webpages and simply use some of the archive material they have available in a low quality format and have a link to the high quality download on the website of the rights holder. News does a story on a company and has a link to the company’s website in the right hand navigation bar – accepted practice. So, it’s nothing new. It’s just applying accepted practice to another digital medium. Where you can find agreement with rights holders, who have high quality content available, post low quality versions on the archive site and have links to the high quality versions – a win-win scenario. The BBC gets content cleared from the archive and the right holder gets traffic from the BBC. Now you probably will find that this is a tiny percentage of the archive – but it’s a start and it would also be a signpost for other rights holders with content in the archive that they could now consider worth clearing it to drive traffic to their online offerings. The BBC trades traffic for content clearance.

    Ultimately though, in my opinion, the BBC should be seeking to get content from the public and then act as a “store and forward” publisher, along with contributing some of its own content into a Digital Commons. Imagine if the BBC gave you the tools to publish your data/content wherever you wanted to from a central location. You could upload your images/video/text/audio to a space the BBC provided for you as part of your “digital licence” fee and once there you could have a suite of tools available which would allow you to publish that content to any other platform. Part of the job of the tool would be to pass the content through a BBC stamping procedure – which would allow for the content to be tracked across the Internet. This would let the BBC maintain quality control and manage any legal issues. Maintaining an area as a Digital Commons would mean that anyone wishing to play with BBC content could do so quite easily with the full knowledge that any content the BBC placed in a Digital Commons was public domain – a digital public service!

    If the tools of production and publishing for digital content have been decentralised then what the BBC can do is act as a centralised clearing house for the content. This is a way it can innovate and act as a activist on content rights and as a consequence free the content!

  3. Fascinating. I agree that historic rights will be difficult to sort out but I don’t think we can just ignore them and focus on getting them right going into the future: there’s too much nationally- and socially-important stuff in the back catalogue to leave orphaned.
    I also think that this is a question of attitude and philosophy: no matter what can actually be achieved the Corporation ought to embrace a bold liberation strategy that will get things moving.

  4. And, Dave, the problem with Heather Couper is that she *is* the programme: she did the research, wrote the words and read the stuff out. She’s not just a presenter. So, if the Beeb wants her stuff in an accessible database, it’ll have to strike a deal with her. You can’t exclude the talent, you need to bring them with and secure their investment in new models too.

  5. Do you agree with Stephen Fry’s opinion of BBC iplayer? Stephen Fry has launched a searing attack on his employers at the BBC, branding the corporation “incredibly naive” for giving away programmes on the iPlayer.

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