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that Heather Couper’s epic history of astronomy, Cosmic Quest, which has been running on Radio 4 since May, will now be withdrawn from the public domain all together.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.

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.