The BBC – a Digital Commons.

1908 Berlin Balloon Race from the Bain Collection
Photo: Library of Congress. Public Domain.

Confirmed this morning – I’m off to the BBC/TechCrunch debate next week.

Mike Butcher has focused the discussion on the BBC as a common platform – i.e.:

Steve Bowbrick, who is chairing the debate, and I have subtitled the debate ‘a common platform’ which is a phrase that seems to suggest the potential for the Corporation (and other players like 4ip) to build a shared space for citizens, organisations, institutions and businesses to use.

Steve Bowbrick has a blog post which deals with this in more detail:

So what I’m talking about is building a big, generous, accommodating public platform that runs code and community and content – making life easier for creators and communities in Britain. A kind of giant shared computer that exposes useful assets like public data, educational content, archives and library catalogues, health data and democratic and community tools… The whole range of useful and enabling content and services that comes from state providers like the BBC, the Ordnance Survey and the Public Records Office and also the good stuff that comes from the commercial and third sectors.

On the panel is Azeem Azahar who wrote previously about a BBC Public License – which would:

* Use BBC content, build on it, add value, build audiences and personal relationships with it;

* Use BBC code, improve on it, make a business from it, give spin-offs from it away or sell them;

* Use BBC services to develop digital society, because the BBC can provide things that the market can’t;

A digital commons concept
Photo: Philippa Willitts. Used under licence.

These ideas are along the lines of the digital commons concept I was proposing:


I floated a few ideas (in the New Ideas Symposium and the Innovation Forum) in my days at the BBC.

Their essence lay in the fact that the BBC, historically, had been given a slice of scarce spectrum and in return provided a public service, but that in the digital era where spectrum was plentiful the BBC needed to focus and seek to act like a “commons” and provide an area where people could gather and share ideas and thoughts openly and creatively, with the BBC adding to the discussion (not seeking to lead). Part of this required a re-imagining of what the licence fee funded/was for.

As it stands people equate the licence fee with paying for the BBC, whereas I was agitating for a digital licence to fund content creation and for the BBC to offer a commons area where this content could be shared freely. The main intent was to move away from the idea being of funding access to an individual playout device – the television – and to be seen to be an organisation that simply made its content available to the nation, who could creatively use it after that.

I don’t think the licence fee is a bad way to fund the BBC (as long as the BBC keeps to it’s public service remit!) but I do think that it has got conflated with simply funding television viewing and as such it needs to be “replaced” and a new digital licence introduced with a new mission statement of what the BBC does.

I’m looking forward to this debate as it may be the birthplace for some interesting ideas!
Birthplace of the stars
Image: NASA. Public Domain.

9 responses

  1. Sad that nobody from the BBC’s rights group is going along to the Techcrunch thing and point out that lots of this just isn’t financially possible.

    I wonder if Azeem Azahar will talk about where all the money to buy the rights he talks about giving away will come from?

    I can’t feel that otherwise the whole thing is a lot of bluesky thinking that rather falls apart the second it gets down to practicalities.

  2. Andrew,

    Get on to Tony Ageh, Jem Stone and James Cridland and get them to represent the rights argument (which they are more than adequately familiar with btw!) or see if they feel like smuggling you in as their secret weapon!

    The rights thing needn’t be a deal breaker though – the historical archive is in one state (which is a nightmare to clear and expensive to fund for a new medium/performance) but any new commissioning need not be atrophied immediately into this state.

    The BBC has a whole channel to run with to challenge any preconceptions and use as a proof-of-concept – BBC Parliament. With a stroke it could turn this vanity project into a cultural goldmine by releasing all the content rights-free. This could prime the pump in terms of making content available for people to repurpose – and it would give the independent producers an idea of what they could sign off on when new commissions are given out by the BBC which had a clause which allowed for rights-free public redistribution of a portion of the content.

    The BBC could commission on one scale with television trailers and standard advertising as part of the deal and a second more immediately lucrative scale which was a programme-only commission and an agreed portion of the final product being made available rights free to be redistributed non-commercially by the BBC (any subsequent exploitation by BBC Worldwide would be another kettle of fish). So you would use the rights-free content as a form of advertising – so the content still gets a profile – but doesn’t necessarily end up costing more.

    It needs a bit of arm twisting and some leaps of faith to do something bold – but the alternative is to try and maintain the status quo and seek legal redress for “innovative” uses that are made of the content – which has proved to be a bit of a dead-end strategy from the music industry, don’t you think?

  3. Great post and comments. See you there.

  4. Actually, unless you’re able to successfully lobby the government for a vast increase in the licence fee or explain to the general public why they only get one tenth of the programming they used to, new commissions very much do have to remain “atrophied” as they do now I’m afraid. Rights have a market value – that’s why the BBC pay the rates they do for talent – and if it is to take more rights it will need to pay for them at that market rate.

    It is also worth noting that the BBC doesn’t hold the full copyright to nearly anything on BBC Parliament. Much of it is Crown Copyright (which has it’s own issues), but otherwise the channel features significant amounts of programming that contain footage from third parties, music, stills and newspaper extracts. There is very little the BBC is able to give away freely.

    The music industries efforts are open to debate, but it is worth noting that we both major political parties have said that unless the music industry gets full co-operation from ISPs to stop copyright infringement, they’ll just legislate it into the statute book. I’m afraid in the longer term I see little practical alternative than we’ll look back with some nostalgia at people “merely” getting occassionally sued for file sharing.

  5. Andrew,

    I know where you’re coming from in terms of the market value of rights but you have to factor in the “do something” versus “the do-nothing” commissioning process.

    Staying with the “do nothing” existing commissioning process does not mean that the content doesn’t get repurposed – it will and the copyright holder doesn’t get paid (cf The Pirate Bay, YouTube, UKNova, etc). At least by making the argument for the “do something” commissioning process you get into the area of everyone making a bit more money.

    This is a classic Game Theory issue for the rights holder – a little bit of a big pot, a big bit of a small pot, everything or nothing. At the moment the odds are weighed heavily on the side of them getting nothing. They are not pursuing a good strategy – as the existing market distributor (the BBC in this case) can sit on their hands and do nothing, whilst the copyright infringers develop new distribution channels at a low cost, and wait for the copyright holder to learn the lesson the hard way. At which point the copyright holder is in a much weaker bargaining position.

    The thing to remember for the copyright holder is that the content going digital means new distribution channels and new distribution territories are up for grabs. A fundamental change has taken place in the marketplace. I’m sure the monks in their ivory towers scoffed at Guttenberg – but at the end of the day the content going from hand produced to mass production changed the distribution channels and territories. That’s all that has happened again. Copyright holders can either stay in their towers demanding the world stop turning or they can look at the historical precedents for adapting to new business environments springing from technological advances. If the printing press is too archaic an example then the technological disruption caused by satellite distribution is a more recent history lesson.

    Looking at the issue of copyright on BBC Parliament, I’m sure Crown Copyright is more than flexible to accommodate non-commercial redistribution by the BBC – otherwise there is a lot of ministerial reports that will require copyright clearance for each and every BBC programme they are used on! With third party footage and music, we’re back to game theory again.

    As for the government talking about legislating to make the ISPs the copyright police – there is a big chasm between what the politicians think they can do and TCP/IP!

  6. As far as the rights holder is concerned the game grid looks very different. The BBC is in many cases a tiny source of revenue, that wants rights that threaten licences to other people worth hundreds of times that value. Where’s the benefit in such a big gamble?

    Talking about illicit repurposing doesn’t really solve anything – if a rights holder is selling to another medium or territory exclusively, that is slightly threatened by illicit use, true. But illicit use might not be noticed by some other buyer, and doesn’t put the rights holder in breach of contract that they have to negotiate their way out of. A bit of illicit use doesn’t affect revenue nearly as badly as being able to get that (enormous) price premium of selling (or even potentially selling) those rights to other areas on an exclusive basis.

    And lets not forget here – the infringers are breaking the law, and most governments are sympathetic. They can always sue the infringers as well.

    Even if (and as above, they’re not) major rights holders sign on, what happens when they themselves don’t hold the rights? It’s very common for, say, publishers to only have rights themselves in certain territories, or for certain timescales, or for certain forms of distribution. If the BBC have to chase after different rights holders to clear different bits of rights for the same work (and they already do to an extent) that has massive cost implications for the BBC, because rights adminstration is massively manually intensive, specialist work. Even that could cost hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

    Crown Copyright is not nearly as simple to deal with as you imagine I’m afraid, and does in fact present major issues to what you suggest. And as I say above, if we go by a game ludus for rights holders then the risk model dicates not giving any of the rights you suggest.

  7. Andrew,

    Will reply directly to your comment later – just responding between meetings – but you’ll be glad to know that I raised the rights issue (and not in a give them all away manner!) last night – Mike Butcher has the opening bit of the debate and hopefuilly Ian Forrester will upload video of it later.

  8. […] Steve Bowbrick, Tom Loosemore, Tony Ageh   I posted a long comment, which expands on the Digital Commons idea I was proposing, on Steve Bowbrick’s post disciussing freeing content at the BBC. I’ve […]

  9. Andrew,

    Apologies for the delay in getting back to you but I was patiently waiting for the updates from Mike Butcher and Ian Forrester. There is no sign yet of Mike Butcher doing an update on the BBC TechCrunch debate and I can’t get Ian Forrester’s videos to work – so I’ll just reply and come back with an update when I have more.

    I agree with you with respect to content the BBC currently has agreed to lock into it’s existing rights structure but I think the BBC could look to alternative content as a means of innovating. I just published a new post expanding on this idea.

    As for existing rights agreements – more people need to be informed as to how the current BBC arrangements work – because when they get the inside track on how things are structured at the moment, they become better informed how things really are! A result of raising the rights issue at the BBC/TechCrunch debate was that there were a number of people that posted subsequently (here, here and here) who showed signs of enlightenment! This issue is not as widely understood as you or I may think it is – and it would be a massive PR boost to the BBC if it became better understood.

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