Freedom? Open source? Show me how!

July 22, 2008

“So the philosophical questions remain:

  • should broadcasters like the BBC allow users to collate other material alongside BBC assets?
  • and if so, how do we technically guarantee that content is appropriate for younger users and doesn’t cross the line with third party rights agreements?”

So says Marc Goodchild of CBBC in this post on the BBC Internet blog (disclaimer – I am the editor of the BBC internet blog).

Marc’s post opens up a pandora’s box of questions which need to be answered if the BBC is to make any progress in the wonderful world of the internet.

Last week I had two meetings.

One was a coffee, really rather than a meeting. It was with a colleague who I respect very much and works in the same part of the BBC as me. He’s a great bloke and chatting to him over many years has helped me learn about what’s going on. He has a legal background and has I think its fair to say not much truck with many of the more fashionable nostrums of the open source/freedom movement in technology and on the net.

“Why should the BBC let anyone use its brands or assets for nothing?” he says (I paraphrase for effect). “What benefit does the BBC get out of it? Why let people play around with our stuff? The brand has a commercial value and a public service value. We need to protect that, not give it away”

A contrast with my other meeting. This was a proper meeting (well, no coffee and in a room). A Controller and someone who wants the BBC more open with its data. The Controller (as they say) “gets it”. He wants people to be able to come to the BBC and know instantly what assets they can take away and how they can play with them.

Easy to say. Tough to do.

As Anna wisely said at the Techcrunch Open BBC event, it’s all very well expecting the BBC’s Director General to “get religion” but that would require the BBC Trust, regulators, rights holders, government, the opposition and the European Commission to get religion too.

And if anything the mood music from all of them is getting tougher. We still seem to be making the same arguments as we did thirty years ago. This recent speech from the new Culture Secretary asks this question:

Have we said content should be free?

(The “we” here is rather important. And the “we” is not the small number of people who might read this blog)

and tellingly:

The music industry has been the canary in the internet coalmine in terms of the consequences of piracy and illegal file-sharing. There is a lot of thinking yet to be done on this question. But we have signalled in our creative economy programme that if the policy and creative industry insiders don’t solve this problem, we will bring the same values of the real world – the values that say shoplifting of a CD is unacceptable – to the internet.

So Marc’s questions are practical challenges to those who think the BBC should open up its assets.

How are you going to do it?

And how are you going to persuade the people with the power that it should be done?

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9 Responses to “Freedom? Open source? Show me how!”

  1. RobBole Says:

    I think there is a middle ground that is worth exploring. The continuum spans between totally protected assets (think my lovely PBS in the US) and wide-open playing field. OK, fine, but the middle ground are media-savvy NGOs, small public-oriented shorts and “take action” tools (i.e. balancing your budget tool against a programme on financial services). These would play well, add value to the end user and extend the BBC as supporting a web of “public purpose media”.


  2. “Why should the BBC let anyone use its brands or assets for nothing?”
    Once content goes digital then people using your assets for “nothing” is an issue you have to confront. Your content is beyond your control when it is in a digital state – but if the purpose of broadcasting that content, in the first place, is to build a relationship with your audience and provide a public service, then these functions are still within your control – you just have to see people using your assets as being a good thing and a way of building relationships with your audience and a public service. The key thing to focus on is that this is about your content going digital. It’s not about being on the Internet – the Internet is just another distribution channel. On the brand issue – anyone using your brand without permission is seeking to subvert your efforts to build relationships and is “poisoning the well” – your brand is important and to be defended.

    “He wants people to be able to come to the BBC and know instantly what assets they can take away and how they can play with them.”
    It’s digital content – that’s how it works. The Internet is just the part of the broadcast chain with the lowest barrier to entry for production and distribution i.e. very few teenagers have their own broadcast studio with editing suite and terrestrial/satellite transmitter but quite a lot have a PC with a webcam and an Internet connection. Now if your content is being distributed digitally then it becomes part of the lingua franca of the Internet. The questions now are 1) How you maintain a link between the content and its source as it flows around this global network and 2) How do you build a relationship with this global audience?

    Which leads us to your questions.

    How are you going to do it?
    The key is to maintain a link with the digital content and through that link build a relationship with the audience. Which is exactly the opportunityGlobalDMX.com seeks to exploit. I left the BBC to start up this company as there is a win-win scenario here for content producer and distributor if they can be facilitated in working together. The alternative is the music industry!

    And how are you going to persuade the people with the power that it should be done?
    This concept is something UK plc must adopt – strategically it’s the digital equivalent of the Silk Road and the nation state that adapts by taking over the trade from the pirates and legalising (taxing) the goods that flow along the distribution chain reaps the reward.

    Ps Andy Burnham’s pronouncements are to be seen in the same light as French governments in terms of a three-strike policy. No one believes such a localised law would survive a European Court challenge – but it makes for good headlines!

  3. Russ Says:

    All of this open-source, creative commons stuff is flavour-of-the-month. Yes, there are some notable examples of Jay-Z using riffs from other artists, etc. But by and large the current system of content ownership and licensing works very well.

    The BBC has great content in its archives. It can exploit that content or license it to third parties. To simply give it away under some unicorn-flowery-love notion of open-source is just wasting public assets. As a license fee payer I object to any giveaway.

    Way too much ink has been spilled on this very marginal issue. The huge cultural products of our time: Shrek, Madonna, Simpsons, Lost, Batman, Halo, etc. are going to remain controlled the way they are because that makes the most economic sense.

    Does the BBC have some not very valuable content (old nature docs) that others can make use of? Sure — just let them license it on fair terms and conditions. Easy enough.

    Why this endless debate? Do people think they will be able to creative derivative works of Life on Mars or EastEnders for free? Fantasy thinking.

    [haven't had any coffee yet, excuse the polemic...]


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  8. [...] If the BBC is to become more open then its not enough for people to talk about it or do low level blackops/skunkworks. It needs to be embedded in the heart of the organisation at a strategic and high editorial level. And the case has still not been properly made, let alone proved. [...]


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