Bringing the past to life

The pros and pitfalls of the BBC's attempt to digitise its archives.

Alison Perrett

Topics Politics

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The BBC Creative Archive Project aims to give British internet users free access to the corporation’s priceless back-catalogue of programmes and music recordings, providing it is for non-commercial use. Up until now, no broadcaster had sought to digitise an archive on this scale, let alone give its audience the tools and freedom to download and share the content.

Copyright in most archived works is not vested solely in the BBC but in a plethora of actors, presenters, screenwriters and others involved in each production. Fears about internet piracy may mean that many of these creators will be reluctant to give permission to digitise their work, and a big promotional exercise lies ahead for the BBC to sell the project.

Despite the copyright challenges, this is an exciting adventure in digitisation. There is around 68 years of consecutive viewing stored in the archive and around 500,000 music recordings. Works presently gathering dust in analogue format can be given a digital life, with new potential to inform, educate, entertain and even inspire new works.

The pilot project, due to be launched in 2005 and set to run for 18 months, will include a limited selection of natural history, archaeology, BBC Parliament and BBC orchestral productions, where many rights are vested in the BBC. The BBC will be studying how the content is used, and the results will be shared with other copyright owners in an effort to convince them to take part.

At the Royal Television Society on London’s South Bank on 28 October 2004, Paula Le Dieu, co-director of the Creative Archive Project, described the aim as to ‘provide fuel for a truly creative nation’, helping the public to become active participants in the BBC’s creative output. Although works enjoying ongoing financial reward might never make it on to the archive, Le Dieu argues that television classics such as Fawlty Towers have a high profile and vibrant commercial life already. It is programmes that have not been aired for years that are of concern – without digitisation, the investment and knowledge contained in these works may go to waste.

Le Dieu acknowledges the difficulties of copyright clearance, describing rights ownership in BBC archival works as a ‘complex ecology’ through which ‘we must know how to negotiate a path with rightholders for the dusty library to see the light’. But she said that the internet community is using technology to share, compile and create new works, and the BBC must try to deliver content via this medium. She referred to the success of, a website that provides a free facility for uploading photos on the web for others to browse, and, a site that analyses a user’s list of favourite music and shares their lists with like-minded listeners.

The internet is clearly not going to unlock the creative genius in us all, no matter how much brilliant free content is thrown our way. But it offers new opportunities for interactivity in content consumption. The Creative Archive seeks to deliver content via a new model that does not conform to traditional notions of a passive audience absorbing programmes via osmosis. For Le Dieu, if the BBC fails to embrace this new form of enjoying and using content, it will be a failure to give ‘public value’.

The vision for the Creative Archive flows from the highest echelons of the BBC. The idea of Creative Archive project was launched publicly at the 2003 Edinburgh TV Festival, by then BBC director-general Greg Dyke. The current director-general Mark Thompson has also fully embraced this vision and seeks to have the project endorsed within the BBC Royal Charter, due to be renewed in 2006. One BBC policy document that gives full support to digitisation initiatives, and specifically the Creative Archive, states: ‘Digital exclusion is a form of social waste. This is why the BBC will always be on the side of universal provision, open access and unencryption.’ (1)

Le Dieu confirmed that the project will employ peer-to-peer software to distribute works, the same technology that gets bad press for facilitating the sharing of music files. But the BBC has rejected the use of encryption to control use of works (encryption controls, sometimes referred to as digital rights management systems (DRMs), can be used to prohibit certain uses of work, place time limits on access and stop users from copying works). Such systems are seen as a hindrance to the ideal of openness – and DRMs are also incapable of deciphering the blurry distinctions between commercial and non-commercial use, which will be an important condition of use in the licence agreement.

So what will stop users from commercially exploiting works, claiming them as their own and distributing them internationally? Well, nothing really, other than a possible guilty conscience and fear of litigation.

Creative Archive users will, however, be compelled to agree to the terms of a licence prior to downloading material. The licence will be similar to that developed by the highly successful Creative Commons initiative founded by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, which allows creators to distribute their works on a ‘some rights reserved’ basis, rather than the mainstream ‘all rights reserved’ (2). This initiative, launched in 2002 in the USA and in October 2004 in the UK, is based on the philosophy that fee-free distribution of content for non-commercial use can promote the work of an artist and also provide inspiration for generating new content. This provides a refreshing alternative to the prevailing notion that tight control over intellectual property is necessary for maximum financial returns.

The BBC Creative Archive licence will state that users must not exploit the works for commercial purposes, and if the work is shared users must give full attribution to the original copyright owner/s. Any derivative work that flows from the work must be licensed under the same terms as attached to its previous form. Additionally, since the archive is paid for by the BBC licence fee, distribution must be limited to the UK.

While the terms of the licence are legally binding, this may not be enough to quell fears held by many creators, their agents or estates about the loss of control over work. This is not surprising, given the prevailing notions about intellectual property, piracy and the internet – from pornography to fraud, from music piracy to terrorist activity, the internet is portrayed as a medium rife with sinister intent.

Yet the growing network of creators embracing the Creative Commons initiative will back up the BBC’s attempts to convince copyright owners of the merits of internet distribution. Cory Doctorow, for example, is a successful science-fiction writer who makes his work available for free download via a Creative Commons licence. Doctorow, present at the Royal Television Society discussion, was quick to counter the incomprehension of one audience member as to how creators could permit their work to be released for free, arguing that free distribution promotes his work and contributes to sales via traditional channels.

Copyright owners may be won over by the potential commercial return from digitalk distribution. An example is the US-based public domain initiative,, which contains a comprehensive database of ‘ephemeral’ US films, such as corporate advertising and government informational programmes, collected by Rick Pellinger and distributed via a Creative Commons licence. While the majority of the stock is available for anyone to view and use, Pellinger makes his money by selling high-quality stock footage for use in commercial productions.

It will be fascinating to observe how the BBC database evolves. Though the specifics are still to be ironed out, users will be encouraged to tag content with their own detailed descriptions, thereby sharing their knowledge of the work with other users. By adding specific details within the archive’s meta-tagging, such as names of species and locations on nature documentaries, the database may be used to pinpoint more obscure elements on the archive, such as species taxonomy, types of birdcalls and details of habitat. Apart from being an invaluable tool for teachers, television buffs, and amateur filmmakers, this will be useful for advertisers and professional filmmakers. Works that would otherwise be out of reach of commercial interests can be made accessible.

Eventually, it is hoped that the Creative Archive Project will encourage other broadcasters and creative institutions to follow suit, creating a vast archive of digitised creative endeavours.

Transferring content from a deteriorating analogue format into a digitally distributable format gives that content a new life. Who will access it, how it will be used and what it may become is a big uncertainty. But an uncertain future in a digital community is surely more appealing to both creator and the consumer than the obscurity and waste of content locked up in dusty archives.

Alison Perrett is an Australian qualified lawyer and has a Master’s degree in electronic publishing at City University, London. She works in copyright licencing and management for a multimedia company.

(1) Building Public Value

(2) See the Creative Commons website

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Topics Politics


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