BBC Creative Archive: Pilot to Start in 2005

More details of the BBC’s Creative Archive were revealed at an Royal Television Society, London Centre meeting last night when Paula Le Dieu gave a presentation on the project’s background and recent developments. Following this, an hour-long discussion, chaired by Digital Lifestyles’s own Simon Perry, explored further details [MP3 recording ~14Mb].

Paula is co-director of the Creative Archive (CA), a project to make BBC archived audio and video media available to the UK public so that they can download it and make creative works based upon it.

The BBC is taking this extraordinary step as they believe it will help them give more value to the licence fee payers – one of their core values.

Paula told us that one of the inspirations for the move was the BBC Micro. Released in 1982, the BBC Micro was an open hardware and software platform that ignited public interest and in no small way contributed to the UK’s hugely popular computing and games scenes. Indeed, by encouraging owners to use the BBC Micro platform in whatever way they wished, it helped many people take their first steps into the digital age and helped shape the industry as it stands today. A game of Elite, anyone?

Since then, we’ve seen the rapid growth of the Internet, and this has encouraged users to share content around the world – and the more material that people share, the more there is for them to draw inspiration from.

The BBC, slow on the uptake, came to the realisation that opening up their archive would allow them to present significant value to their public – enabling them to listen, watch, download, share and use materials in any way they wish, under an non-restrictive licence.

The remit of the Creative Archive has changed since the BBC’s previous Director General, Greg Dyke, left – Mark Thompson, the new DG, is completely behind the project and wants to include full programmes from the BBC’s huge media library. Give that some of the material that may be released has not seen the light of day since broadcast, it’s an exciting opportunity to give new life to content that has been sitting on shelves gathering dust for years. The BBC’s archive contains some 1.5 million items of television, equating to 600,000 hours of television – or put another way, 68 years of consecutive viewing. In addition to this is 500,000 audio recordings.

Obviously, that’s a lot of bandwidth – and the more popular the Creative Archive becomes, the more expensive it will be to distribute it. Consequently, the BBC is looking at peer-to-peer (P2P) methods of distribution, so that the public become not just their creative partners, but distribution partners also. The Corporation is also looking to the public for help in metatagging the content, after all people need to find what they need and know what they are looking for. Users of the content will be invited to tag content, and communities of interest will be sought out for their expertise on particular subjects. Paula gave an example of the Archaeological Society, who have already, of their own volition,  tagged and catalogued all of the BBC’s archaeological output before the Creative Archive was even announced. Layers of metadata will be encouraged, so that content will be searchable in many different ways – for example, actors present, type of canned laughter – even types of shoes worn in a scene, and each layer will be open to peer review.

We feel this layering of metadata is of huge importance, an idea we have been putting to media owners for a long time. We feel the addition of descriptive metadata will be added to time-coded media with or without the owner blessing – it enables the viewing public to add their knowledge and experience, without limit of depth. It’s very encouraging to find that the BBC is to include this in CA.

New ways of using and accessing material require new licences. The Creative Archive team have looked at a number of alternative licences, and intent to distribute the content under terms based on the well-established Creative Commons (CC) Licence. Key requirements of content users will be that they properly credit the source and creators of the original materials, and that the new work they have produced inherits the same CC licence. All derivative works have to be non-commercial in nature – but of course a new licence can be sought for commercial use if required.

One aspect of the licence that needs work is a requirement that content is not distributed out of the UK. It is far from clear as to how this would be enforceable – web sites can be accessed from around the world, and one file downloaded from a P2P network may be assembled in blocks from a dozen countries. Any clip of interest to anyone will certainly be distributed worldwide within seconds of it becoming available. The provision has been built in because the UK licence fee is paying for the project, but it shows that the BBC is trying to tackle the new distribution problems that the digital age brings.

Because of content licensing within the BBC and the source of much of the materials in the archive, the Creative Archive’s material will be started off with natural history content – music clearance and artist’s rights will have to be tackled later before the rest of the archive is put online.

Andrew Chowns of the Producers Rights Agency raised the question of derogatory  treatment of works from the CA. Depending on the content within the CA this could become a problem. Nothing spreads faster than a Friday afternoon joke video clip, and the Creative Archive will no doubt contain many items that regulars to b3ta and similar sites might find too tempting not to load into Premier and misuse. Again, this is an aspect that they will need to work on.

To enable the public to use the content, it will not be distributed with a digital rights management scheme and will be available in a number of formats, probably two proprietary and one open. Le Dieu described DRM as an envelope with a transparent window that only allowed you to see part of the content, without getting access to it.

She also stressed that the Creative Archive is not just about the BBC – they want other content providers and broadcasters to get involved, and want to share what they have learned, and have still to learn, with them. The whole project is very much a learning exercise for the Corporation – scary and exciting in equal measures.

The Creative Archive know that they have a lot of areas that need to be explored and developed and are looking for ways to involve the public in the project. Although there is no fixed start date, a 18-month to two year pilot will begin in 2005. It will not be restricted in the number of people who can access it, only in the amount of material that will be available.

The CA will not be producing a software platform or editing tools as they feel there are already plenty of free and cheap solutions out there. They may however produce an environment for the public to showcase works they have produced using CA content, much like those around Video Nation and One Minute Movies.

The Creative Archive is certainly an exciting project – an experiment in alternative licensing, another legal application for P2P networks and a chance for the UK public to get their hands on some fascinating and important archive materials. As a vehicle for learning about content distribution and consumption in the digital age, we can’t think of a better example.

MP3 recording of the Creative Archive Q&A ~14Mb
BBC Creative Archive
Royal Television Society – London Centre
Producers Rights Agency UPDATE: James Governor’s write up

Published by

Fraser Lovatt

Fraser Lovatt has spent the last fifteen years working in publishing, TV and the Internet in various capacities, and believes that they will be seperate platforms for at least a while yet. His main interests at the moment are exploring where Linux is taking home entertainment and how technology is conferring technical skills on more and more people. Fraser Lovatt was born in the same year that 2001: A Space Odyssey was delighting and confusing people in the cinemas, and developed a lifelong love of technology as soon as he realised that things could be taken apart, sometimes put back together again, but mostly left in bits or made into something the original designer hadn't quite planned upon. At school he was definitely in the ZX Spectrum/Magpie/BMX camp, rather than the BBC Micro/Blue Peter/well-behaved group. This is all deeply ironic as he later went on to spend nine years working at the BBC. After a few years of working as a bookseller in Scotland, ("Back when it was actually a skilled profession" he'll tell anyone still listening), he moved to England for reasons he can't quite explain adequately to himself. After a couple of publishing jobs punctuated by sporadic bursts of travelling and photography came the aforementioned nine years at the BBC where he specialised in internet technologies and video. These days his primary interests are Java, Linux, videogames and pies - and if they're not candidates for convergence, then what is?