Creative Commons gives the BBC uncommon creativity

Summary:By adopting Creative Commons ideas, the BBC is showing how public service adds vitality to digital IP

Good news is rare in wartime. The intellectual property battles seem a Darwinian melee where the powerful are free to set rules that crush the different, the innovative and the revolutionary before they have a chance to grow. So it is with joy and excitement that I learned the BBC is to adopt Creative Commons (CC) style licences for its Creative Archive project -- the vast database of content it is building for public consumption.

The details aren't clear yet, but the theme is. You will be able to take archive material and use it as you like, provided you respect whatever limits the BBC chooses to set. These will be as loose as the BBC can set, concomitant with the existing restrictions applying to the material.

This is one of the most substantial endorsements yet for the CC idea, which grants explicit legal freedoms to consumers while protecting the wishes -- or legal obligations --of creators. With chief Commoner Lawrence Lessig acting as a permanent advisor to the project, the BBC is taking this step very seriously indeed: it's the clearest statement yet that public service ideals can and will continue to flourish online.

To understand how and why the BBC can do this, it's important to go back to the Corporation's genesis in the early 1920s. Broadcasting in the UK back then was seen as a natural monopoly. The technology was far too primitive to support unfettered competition on a small, crowded island: there was just one radio band, capable of supporting a handful of stations across the nation. It couldn't be considered as analogous to the press with its potentially unlimited bandwidth. At the same time the government considered wireless a potentially disruptive technology with considerable military and social implications. It would be irresponsible to cede control.

On the other hand, Edwardian Britain was a place that put great store in high public morality -- and part of that public morality was a commitment to impartiality by the civil servants who put into action the decisions of the politicians. If there was to be broadcasting, it would have to be a monopoly: if it was a monopoly it would have to be a state monopoly. But a state monopoly would have to be run like the civil service -- an impartial organ of the state, not of the party in control. A distinction worth remembering.

And so the BBC was born, with a primary commitment to non-commercial, impartial broadcasting for the public good and paid for directly by the public. Its first leader, John Reith, personified the BBC's high-minded, paternalistic and slightly dour remit to entertain, inform and educate. We might be accused of giving the public what we think they need instead of what they want, he said, but few know what they want and very few what they need.

Fast forward eighty years and what do you find?

Topics: Tech Industry

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Editor, ZDNet UK. Ex technology/technical editor of ZDNet UK, IT Week, PC Magazine, Computer Life, Mac User, Alfa Systems, Amstrad, Sinclair. Micronet 800, Marconi Space and Defence Systems, and a dodgy TV repair shop in the back streets of Plymouth. Can still swap out a gassy PL509 with the best of 'em.Dear Reader - contact me via our m... Full Bio

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