Auntie opens her drawers

The BBC is putting seventy years of programming online: is the past the thing of the future?

It's been a busy month for the BBC. While dodging bullets over Iraq and custard pies from its competitors, the august institution has been mulling over its digital future. One result, presented with aplomb by the director general, Greg Dyke, is the creation of the Creative Archive project. This, said the DG, will be a huge online collection of the BBC's past programming: everything that it can put out, it will put out -- and it'll be free. Moreover, it'll be under a Creative Commons-like licence: you can do what you like with it, provided only that you don't make money.

It will be a huge experiment in online content distribution -- one of the most contentious issues of modern technology. As people will be encouraged to take the content and do what they like with it, the archive will mesh beautifully with peer-to-peer file-swapping, and the way information moves out from the BBC's vaults and into the wider world will be fascinating to watch. Overnight, file-swapping will be given a huge and entirely legitimate boost: running Kazaa on your broadband connection will no longer be seen as the equivalent of running up the skull and crossbones. Instead, you'll be performing a public service. Hey, they should pay you.

It's much more an experiment in morals than in technology. The one unshakeable tenet of the anti-file-sharing campaigners is that piracy is theft, and theft is wrong. Who'd argue with that? The BBC can contemplate giving away the store because it's bought and paid for its contents, and it sees its job as distributing them as widely as possible. But that conflicts with the creators' desires to get paid commensurate with the success of their creations, and here the BBC has often disagreed with those who do the creating.

One recent event crystallises the issue. James Follett, author of various entertainments, was amazed and dismayed when the new digital radio channel BBC 7 recently repeated his 1980s SF series, Earthsearch. He hadn't agreed to this or even been asked -- it turns out a deal had been done with the Author's Licencing and Collecting Society, a UK text equivalent of the RIAA. As James Follett subsequently agreed to record a three-hour spectacular about James Follett for BBC 7, that particular problem has doubtless been resolved to everyone's satisfaction, but expect many more interesting happenings along those lines.

While BBC 7 can only broadcast so many hours a month, the archive will simultaneously publish thousands upon thousands of programmes: the paper agreements behind them may well specify that the BBC is allowed to do this, but it's a fair bet that nobody who signed those contracts ever envisioned this happening. Some will feel miffed, and we will have to wait and see whether the benefits to the creatives will be sufficient to mollify the sense of unfairness. That is the great unanswered question of file-sharing, and the Creative Archive's role in answering that question is in itself entirely in line with the BBC's remit.

One of public service broadcasting's most important functions is innovation. The BBC has a long and honourable history here, and not just in programme making. It's spent a great deal of time and money inventing and deploying high quality ideas from its Kingswood Warren R&D laboratory, an area of creativity often overlooked: stereo, teletext, NICAM, digital broadcasting and many other ideas we now take for granted have all benefited in many ways from the BBC's active involvement behind the scenes. But innovation implies experimentation, and whenever you try an experiment you risk falling flat on your face.

Failure is a great gift to the Corporation's critics: a terrible waste of public money on something nobody wants. Success is also easy to spin agin the Beeb: a terrible use of public money in unfair competition with the commercial guys. Of course, experiments will fail: in media as in science, you learn as much from the stuff that doesn't work as you do from the successes. The corollary to this is that the BBC can't judge its success from what gets said about it by other broadcasters and newspapers -- most of whom hate it with a passion -- or by politicians. The Conservatives have said that they'll consider shutting the BBC's Web site down, for example, an act of thundering cultural vandalism. That they don't mean it and would never do it is neither here nor there; it's a good example of the dire level of debate politicians think we deserve.

The only things that really matter to the BBC are the people it serves. We pay our licence fee not because we'll go to court if we don't, but because at a deep level we agree that the BBC is worth it. If we didn't, the licence fee wouldn't survive for a microsecond. Do we think the Creative Archive is a good idea? Overwhelmingly, yes. Will it be fair for those who make the programmes? I think so, but we'll have to wait and see. There are many decisions yet to make about the Creative Archive, and at each step it could go nastily and expensively wrong. But the BBC is positioning itself at the forefront of free information: we'll find out whether that brave new world we've promised ourselves will actually work. And that's far more exciting than EastEnders.