Sharing archives: Will broadcasters (finally) put planet before profit?

I have long wondered if both radio and TV broadcasters store their archival material in black holes – into which everything disappears and nothing ever comes out. And certainly, nothing is shared with anyone else.

In a widely reproduced and commented op ed essay written for SciDev.Net in November 2008, titled Planet before profit for climate change films, I noted:
“It isn’t just climate-related films that are locked up with copyright restrictions. Every year, hundreds of television programmes or video films — many supported by public, corporate or philanthropic funds — are made on a variety of development and conservation topics.

“These are typically aired once, twice or at best a few times and then relegated to a shelf somewhere. A few may be released on DVD or adapted for online use. But the majority goes into archival ‘black holes’, from where they might never emerge again. Yet most of these films have a long shelf life and could serve multiple secondary uses outside the broadcast industry.”

Escape from the Southern 'black hole'?
Escape from the Southern 'black hole'?
Well, it seems things are changing, albeit very slowly. Last month, we welcomed the announcement from Al Jazeera sharing their news footage online through a Creative Commons license — the first time that video footage produced by a news broadcaster is released for commercial and non-commercial use.

Now comes the news that Australia’s public broadcaster ABC is releasing selected content from its vast archives for non-commercial use by others. And we must thank Charles Darwin for that.

On 12 February 2009, to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, ABC started releasing some archival materials, all based loosely around the theme of evolution and mutation. This Australian first was achieved through ABC’s collaborative media site, Pool.

In an imaginatively named effort called Gene Pool, ABC started off with a recording from its archives of genetics professor Steve Jones talking about Darwin’s life and work.

The next offering to Gene Pool would be a clip from ABC’s Monday Conference in 1971 featuring Stanford entomologist Paul Ehrlich talking about climate change (yes, it’s from 38 years ago!).

These materials are being released under the Creative Commons 3.0 licence allowing people to reuse or remix them in any way they like — as long as it’s for non-commercial use.

On Gene Pool website, ABC said: “You can also create your own work exploring the themes of evolution and mutation in lateral ways, and share them back into the Gene Pool.”

A framework for sharing...
A framework for sharing...
As Creative Commons Australia explained: “This means that people can tweak, twist and remix the files to create their own creative interpretation of the themes of evolution and mutation, and share these results with the rest of the world. The idea is to build a whole community up around the project, remixing and reusing the ABC archival material in new and previously unthought of ways. This all culminates in a public exhibition of Gene Pool pieces at Melbourne’s RMIT on November 24th – the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s book The Origin of Species.”

They added: “Just imagine what gems might be hidden away in ABC filing cabinets, waiting to be discovered and put to good use by the population that payed for them in the first place.”

That’s precisely what I’ve been saying for a long time – the taxpayer-funded broadcasters like BBC, NHK or ABC (and their equivalents in other countries) have no moral right to lock away their archives on legal or technical grounds. And to think that some of the content thus held up could actually help us in winning history’s eternal race between education and catastrophe!

Nothing escapes this one...for now
Nothing escapes from this one...for now
The BBC – hailed as a model public broadcaster worldwide – is among the worst offenders on this count. It holds one of the largest archives on environment, natural history and wildlife filmed all over the planet for several decades, yet it stubbornly refuses to share this material with anyone, even when it’s only for strict non-commercial, educational use. Read one example in my July 2007 blog post, The Lawyers who locked up the Butterfly Tree.

This myopic selfishness is contrasted (and put to shame) by exceptional film-makers like Richard Brock (who worked with BBC Natural History Unit for 35 years before leaving it unhappy over its rights management) who have decided to open up their personal video archives for non-commercial use especially in the majority world where such material is in short supply.

We can only hope that ABC’s move would build up pressure on the stubborn old Auntie BBC to finally relent. In fact, this might be a chance for all those public broadcasters – many of them now ‘Aunties without eyeballs’ – to redeem themselves at last, ending decades of copyrights tyranny. (And if that puts their inhouse lawyers out of a job, they can join greedy bankers now lining up for public forgiveness!)

ABC says about its tentative steps to the world of open archives: “It’s a small offering to start but there’ll be a lot more to come. We’re working madly behind the scenes getting clearance to release more more more.”

Watch this space…and keep an eye on that Gene Pool!

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

4 thoughts on “Sharing archives: Will broadcasters (finally) put planet before profit?”

  1. You can keep poking Auntie until the cows come home, or till the planet goes bust, but nothing will happen. The BBC is a daylight robbery of British taxpayer money and, according to what you say they have been filming all voer the world…and does the Auntie feel any moral obligation to share the material with locations from where these came? Nope! If the BBC could only film British wildlife, they woiuldn’t have much to make those fantastic films.

  2. This is a really interesting area and it’s great to read such a good overview and analysis.

    Broadcasters face a lot of challenges when they try to re-use footage because of the number of different copyrighted sources that the pictures in programmes often come from.

    One way around this is for special interest organisations to build their own libraries and then to make that available for public use. Space agencies seem to be particularly pioneering in this area with both ESA and NASA providing access to multimedia galleries that include video.

    NASA have even gone so far as to to encourage “mash ups” of their content in podcasts (see for example ).

    I wonder if this approach could be adopted by other organisations? I think it would be worthwhile for special interest (and especially scientific) organisations to consider building up their own footage libraries as well as co-funding tv programmes – that way they can guarantee future access.

  3. Diarmaid,
    Many thanks for this thoughtful comment and constructive suggestion. I have also commented on the far-sighted, liberal policy that NASA adopted to copyrights – see:

    This is indeed the right policy for all other organistions that are either public-funded and/or operate in the public interest. Sadly, most globally operating research institutes, UN agencies and even otherwise liberal-minded development and humanitarian organisations restrict copyrights of material they commission, fund or produce. This historical practice is being continued uncritically and without review for decades.

    That may have had limited justification in the past, but in the new media world live in, and confronting crises such as climate change, these old policies and practices are utterly unhelpful. In 2006, I called for poverty to be recognised as a copyrights-free zone; in late 2008, I have also amplified calls for climate change to be recognised as a copyrights-free zone. Both calls have generated some discussion online in various forums, but the development and broadcast communities have chosen to carry on, business as usual.

    See links provided from:

  4. We in the subcontinent have grown up trusting ‘Auntie’ BBC so much that its hard to believe she is such a miser. Keep on writing about Auntie’s greed and selfishness so that her the uninformed admirers would know better than to sing her praise.

    Shame on you, Auntie…..and at your age too!

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