BBC Creative Archive

Greg Dyke, director general of the BBC, has a vision. In a speech he gave this Sunday at the Edinburgh International TV Festival he described his plans for how to leverage the huge BBC media library — give it away.

Looking ahead, let me give you one example of the kind of thing the BBC will be able to do in the future.

The BBC probably has the best television library in the world.

For many years we have had an obligation to make our archive available to the public, it was even in the terms of the last charter.

But what have we done about it?

Well, you all know the problem.

Up until now, this huge resource has remained locked up, inaccessible to the public because there hasn’t been an effective mechanism for distribution.

But the digital revolution and broadband are changing all that.

For the first time, there is an easy and affordable way of making this treasure trove of BBC content available to all.

Let me explain with an easy example.

Just imagine your child comes home from school with homework to make a presentation to the class on lions, or dinosaurs, or Argentina or on the industrial revolution.

He or she goes to the nearest broadband connection – in the library, the school or even at home – and logs onto the BBC library.

They search for real moving pictures which would turn their project into an exciting multi-media presentation.

They download them and, hey presto, they are able to use the BBC material in their presentation for free.

Now that is a dream which we will soon be able to turn into reality.

We intend to allow parts of our programmes, where we own the rights, to be available to anyone in the UK to download so long as they don’t use them for commercial purposes.

Under a simple licensing system, we will allow users to adapt BBC content for their own use.

We are calling this the BBC Creative Archive.

When complete, the BBC will have taken a massive step forward in opening our content to all – be they young or old, rich or poor.

But then it’s not really our content – the people of Britain have paid for it and our role should be to help them use it.

The vision and even the project name sounds like a cross between the Creative Commons project, chaired by Lawrence Lessig, and the Internet Archive founded by Brewster Kahle. No surprise then that Slate reports the BBC talked to both Lessig and Kahle before making their plans. In a blog comment, Kahle also acknowledged the visit: “Yes, the BBC crew was brought to the Archive by Larry Lessig and we showed how inexpensive it can be and how we have dealt with the ego’s and restrictions issues that always come up. I dont know what role we played, but their decision is fantastic and hopefully trendsetting… thank you bbc.”

There are a lot of details that haven’t been announced yet. For example, it’s not clear how much of the BBC library the BBC owns free and clear, or at least freely enough that they can redistribute under a new kind of license. Then there’s the inevitable argument from commercial interests that the BBC shouldn’t be allowed to compete with their own online distribution. This kind of argument will probably hold less sway in the U.K. than it would here in the U.S., however, as the British are already comfortable with the idea of a strong government-sponsored media.

There are lots of reasons this is a great move on the part of the BBC. First and most important, the Internet has brought down distribution costs to the point that, as far as gifts to humanity go, this has a lot of bang for the buck. Second, BBC shows are paid for by fees charged to UK television owners, so there’s a good argument that the library is already owned by the British TV-watching public. These are reason enough, but I like to think there’s even an argument that it is in the BBC’s self-interest to share with free-loading yanks like myself. As Dyke says in his speech, Britain’s television reflects its culture, tastes and values. That kind of export can have far-reaching secondary benefits for a nation, from increased tourism to more desire for British goods. Just think of what a great marketing tool Hollywood has been for Levis Jeans. By making BBC News, BBC documentaries or even Absolutely Fabulous easily available to the world at large the British culture may find real economic returns. As The Guardian put it, “if the BBC doesn’t get its media out to as many people as possible, it’s failing its charter requirements.”

Sidenote: It took me a few days to blog about this, and yet it still hasn’t hit the U.S. press. Aside from the Slate article, Google News is turning up almost no coverage outside of the UK press and the blogs. I try to stay away from conspiracy theories (really, I do) but I can’t help but wonder if the silence has anything to do with the battle being raged between the BBC and Rupert Murdoch, or the fact that Murdoch’s media empire stands to lose the most if things like this start to catch on? Why is this a non-story on this side of the pond?

[UPDATE 9/11/2003: Lawrence Lessig has an article in the Financial Times about the BBC Creative Archive.]