Creative Commons gives the BBC uncommon creativity

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? The environment into which the BBC was born has mutated beyond imagining: through digital technology, the world of broadcasting is as unfettered now as the world of the press was in the 1920s. Anyone can start a station with world-wide reach, and Edwardian paternalism has transmuted into a nervous mix of free markets, lowered expectations and considerable distrust on all sides.

But a most curious thing has happened: the Reithian nature of the BBC remains. In the UK, arguments rage constantly over what public service broadcasting is and should be, but those arguments still centre around whether what we want is what we need, and whether the BBC has a good balance between the two.

Even with many waves of commercialism lapping at its core the organisation remains, however imperfectly, publicly funded, impartial and conscious of its role. It has thrown itself headlong into the online world: its eight radio networks are available online live and massively archived. And despite a bloody tussle with the government over Iraq leading to the resignation of the top two BBC executives, it has perversely emerged stronger, with greater public support and -- at least for now -- politically inviolable.

It is from this position of strength, vision and commitment that the BBC has found the legal framework with which to make its archives as available as possible, and will demonstrate the potential of a permissive, rather than restrictive, approach to intellectual property.

Is this fair? The BBC spends some of its billions publishing technology news online, in direct competition with the company that pays my wages. By rights I should resent this use of its massive resources: I do not. The BBC legitimised radio as a useful, interesting and valuable medium; it did the same for television. By becoming a strong voice on the Internet, it has helped the UK become much more at ease in the online world. It delivers readers, not abducts them.

With the adoption of a Creative Commons-style licence, the Corporation will extend its public service remit far beyond the distribution channels under its direct control, while still protecting its content and without poisoning the commercial environment that drives so much innovation and creativity elsewhere. If you believe that more freedom equals more opportunity, as I do, then everyone wins. Good news from the war? It's about time.


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