Creative Commons

Let me get this straight right up front: I think the public domain is critically important to human advancement, I think the net is its most important representative on this plane and I think copyright is out of control. I also think that Creative Commons is a fascinating and practical new approach to networked copyright (Danny explained it here and mirrored a useful flash presentation).

But… then let me go on to say that I dislike orthodoxy of every kind and that, in the clamour to roll back or abolish copyright law and in the profusion of alternatives, I see an emerging orthodoxy – the public domain is in crisis, creativity and innovation in peril, copyright owners returning us to the dark ages. The story neatly collapses together lots of hot geek issues – like open source, unbundling Microsoft and Web Services – and it pulls together lots of clever and useful minds – like Kahle, Lessig, Barlow and about half a million bloggers – but it’s not an open-and-shut case.

Where, for instance, is the actual damage caused by extended copyright protection for books? Who is actually suffering under the silly provisions of the DMCA and won’t the whole thing be thrown out bit by bit by various courts? Are the record labels hurting anyone with their suicidal mis-application of resources in file sharing?

I blogged the public domain in more detail in June here.

Problems with Azeem’s BPL idea

Azeem’s BPL idea will encounter many obstacles on its way to the mainstream:

1. How far downstream does the BPL go? If you require content and app developers to embed the BPL in all derivitive product (as the pure GPL requires), there is no limit. This will alienate businesses who don’t want their work to inherit the BPL. It would be better to allow developers to use BBC material without publishing their own source – a sort of one-way GPL that would permit bigger, more conservative organisations to play.

2. The whole thing is going to be extremely hard to explain to almost anyone, let alone to BBC Governors, management, regulators and media. It’s easy to imagine the project going nowhere if entrenched interests succeed in characterising it as something geeky, something to do with computers – or, worse, as some kind of weirdo collectivism, detached from reality – “meanwhile, back in the real world.” How would it play in The Daily Mail and the rest of the Conservative media, already hostile to the Beeb?

3. Competitors – many badly knocked around by the crash – will only approve if the effect of the BPL is to reduce the BBC’s overall share of audience. The scheme should be engineered to achieve this, not to cement the BBC as the sole source of quality content and code in the UK or as the hub of an emerging content network.

4. As a starting project Digital IDs are tricky. Anyone issuing hard IDs like the ones envisaged by Azeem will be perceived as an arm of government. No one would believe for a minute that there were no Government-mandated back doors. It might be better to stop short of hard authentication and start with credentials: ‘I’m over 18’, ‘I live in the UK so I’m entitled to get BBCi content for nothing’, ‘I’m under 14 so I can enter the CBBC Chat Rooms’… These simpler IDs, if widely adopted, would be a trojan horse for the real thing.

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.