The lawyers who locked up the Butterfly Tree

This photo was taken in August 2005 in Toyama, Japan, which is some 200km east of Tokyo. The occasion was during the Japan Wildlife Film Festival, held in Toyama every other summer since 1993.

I am seen with Brenda and Neil Curry, my film-maker friends from South Africa. That was a memorable night for Neil, whose remarkable film, The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree, won the festival’s highest award.

The 50-min film captures the delicate relationship between the elephant, the Emperor Moth and the Mopane Tree (scientific name: Colophospermum mopane). It was produced by Oxford Scientific Films for BBC Natural World, bringing together the creative talents of Neil Curry, Alastair and Mark MacEwen, and Sean Morris.

Here’s the full official synopsis of the film:
Mopane woodland has been symbolic of African bush for centuries but its ecology is often misunderstood. Its importance to the fragile ecosystem is paramount. In this programme we show the delicate relationship between the elephant, the emperor moth and the incredible mopane tree. We also show the vital impact this ecosystem has on a local family who depend upon the delicious harvest of mopane worms to supplement their diet, and the precious resources the mopane tree provides in order to survive in the mopane woodland of Botswana.

Foreign delegates, staff and volunteers of JWF2005 Neil Curry accepting the Best of JWF2005 award on behalf of his team

I was in Toyama as a guest speaker, talking about TVE Asia Pacific‘s Children of Tsunami media project, which was then in progress.

Brenda and Neil, originally from the UK, now live in wine country off Cape Town. Neil is the quintessential natural history film-maker: meticulous in his approach to a story, passionate in what he covers, and with tons of patience.

Most natural history film-makers go for animal subjects. It’s much harder to do an interesting film about a plant or tree that stays in one place and does not have an annual breeding cycle like animals.

That’s just one of many reasons why The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree is outstanding. It tells a complex story of an ecosystem that is inter-dependent and in balance.

The film, made in 2004, also won the top award at WildScreen (Bristol, UK), considered to be the oscar awards in wildlife and natural history film-making.

A stand of Mopane laden with seed pods - image courtesy Africa Hunter Image courtesy Tourism Botswana

Now here’s the rest of the story, which is not as upbeat. Neil spent many months in Botswana filming this story, and wanted to take the finished film back to the communities where it was shot. The wildlife parks and schools in the area, he knew, could make good use of the film to educate the local kids, adults and visitors.

What would be simpler than that? Get a VHS or DVD copy and pass it on to them, right?

Wrong. When I met Neil in the summer of 2005, it was more than 18 months since the film was made. For much of that time, he had been trying to obtain permission from the BBC to share a non-broadcast copy of his film with the people in Botswana. His request was passed from person to person, and from division to division, with no clear decision made, and no permission granted.

The BBC had invested funds in making the film, and had a legal right to decide how and where it was to be used. Focused on ‘revenue optimisation’ and ‘returns on investment’, its bean-counters could not care less whether the film-maker wished to share his creation with the local people whose reality he had captured.

This is not an isolated incident. In fact, it is alarmingly wide-spread: every year, excellent environmental documentaries and development films are produced, most of them using public funds (who pays the BBC license fee? The British public!). Yet these films are locked up in complex copyrights that prevent them from being used by anyone outside broadcast circles.

As I said in my recent speech to Asia Media Summit 2007:
Even where the film-makers or producers themselves are keen for their creations to be used beyond broadcasts, the copyright policies stand in the way. In large broadcast organisations, it is lawyers and accountants –- not journalists or producers -– who now seem to decide on what kind of content is produced, and how it is distributed under what restrictions.

I don’t know if Neil Curry ever cleared the rights to screen the film to small groups of people in Botswana or elsewhere in Africa. But I think of this every time BBC World cries its heart out for the poor and suffering in Africa.

This is one global broadcaster that does not put its money where its mouth is.

In fact, the BBC’s accountants must be laughing all the way to their bank.

Read my related posts: End this callous waste: Open up broadcast archives for combating poverty and ignorance!

Public funds, private rights: Big mismatch in development film-making

27 July 2007 – Neil Curry responds to my views on optimum duration of natural history documentaries

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!

UNEP’s search for God: Here’s the way forward to save the planet!

Satinder Bindra

Satinder Bindra: Voice of the Planet?

“Content is king — but distribution is God!”

With these words, UNEP’s newly appointed Director of Communications and Public Information, Satinder Bindra (photo, above), engaged my attention at a meeting in Paris earlier this week.

I almost jumped up in total agreement — this is just what we’ve been saying for years, especially to those who support information, education and communication activities in UN agencies.

Unlike many career UN officials, Satinder knows what he’s talking about. He comes to UNEP with over two decades of wide and varied experience in journalism and broadcasting – the last 10 years spent as a Senior International Correspondent/South Asia Bureau Chief for CNN based in New Delhi, India.

In the hard headed and hard nosed world of international news and current affairs television, distribution and outreach can make or break any content provider. This is something that the two leading news channels BBC World and CNN International know very well — and the more recent entrant Al Jazeera English is still finding out.

Satinder’s remark, in this instance, was more to do with how to get information and analysis on sustainable development out to as many people as possible in all corners of the planet. This is part of UNEP’s core mission since its founding in 1972 — and as chief of communication and public information, Satinder now takes on this formidable challenge.

In Paris, he was listening, taking notes and talking to everyone in the small group who’d come together for the annual partner meeting of the Com Plus Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development.

Com+ is a “partnership of international organizations and communications professionals from diverse sectors committed to using communications to advance a vision of sustainable development that integrates its three pillars: economic, social and environmental”. TVE Asia Pacific was admitted to the partnership a few months ago.

As I’m sure Satinder realises, at stake in his new assignment is a lot more than audience ratings, market share or revenue stream of a single broadcaster. Those are important too, but not in the same league as ensuring life on Earth – in all its diversity and complexity – continues and thrives.

Satinder struck me as a practical and pragmatic journalist who wants to get the job done efficiently. We can only hope the rest of UNEP will keep up with him — or at least they don’t get too much in his way!

As he finds his way around the globally spread, multidisciplinary and sometimes heavily bureaucratic UN organisation, Satinder will come across some incongruities, cynicism and institutional inertia all of which have held UNEP back from being the dynamic global leader in our pursuit of elusive sustainable development.

At the big picture level, communication at UNEP has often been defined narrowly as institutional promotion – delivering UNEP logo to the news media of the world, or boosting the image of its executive director and other senior officials. We don’t grudge anyone enjoying their 15 minutes of fame, but a technical agency like UNEP has so much more to offer — in terms of rigorous science, multiple perspectives, wide ranging consultation and bringing diverse players to a common platform.

The Nobel Peace Prize winning Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), co-supported by UNEP and World Meteorological Organisation, is a good recent example of how solid science, communicated through the media, can inspire governments, industry and rest of society to find solutions to a major global challenge.

The 20-year success of the Montreal Protocol to save the ozone layer is another example. Again, UNEP was a key player in this accomplishment, and is still engaged in the race to phase out the use of a basket of chemicals that damage the protecting ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.

There’s a lot more good science and tons of good stories lurking inside UNEP — if only its experts know how to get these out, and if only its bean-counters won’t stand in the way.

Ironically, elsewhere in the same UNEP Paris building that we were having the Com Plus meeting, the adorable cartoon character Ozzy Ozone (below) was being holed up by excessive rules and regulations. He is one of the best known public communication products to come out of the organisation. Yet, as I wrote earlier this year, he is bottled up and kept captive by an unimaginative UN system.

Then there is the whole scandalous situation where UNEP-funded environmental films are released with needlessly excessive copyright restrictions. As I have been saying, this is the big mismatch in environment and development film-making: many films are made using donor (i.e. public or tax payer) funds, but due to the ignorance or indifference of funders, the copyrights are retained by private individuals or companies involved in the production.

In UNEP’s case, for years it has been commissioning (and sometimes funding) a London-based production company, with a charitable arm, to produce environmental films. That’s certainly a choice for UNEP if the agency feels it continues to get value for its money. But tragically, the producers jealously guard all the copyrights, releasing these only under rigid conditions to a select few.

Whatever outreach figures they might claim, these cannot match what the same films would achieve if the copyrights were not so restrictive. Freed from crushing rights, such environmental films – made with UNEP funding or blessings or both – could benefit thousands of groups engaged in awareness, advocacy, activism, education and training.

For sure, we’ve heard the arguments in favour of tight copyright regimes. Film-makers have every right to be acknowledged for their creative efforts, but public funded products must not be locked up by greedy lawyers and accountants — or even by selfish film-making charities. And millions of users around the world should be able to access such products without having to get through the eye of the copyright needle first.
July 2007 blog post: Lawyers who locked up the butterfly tree

Can Satinder Bindra overcome these hurdles that have for so long inhibited UNEP from reaching its potential? We just have to wait and see.

When he talks about distribution being God, we have to readily agree. But he will soon find some elements within UNEP – or in crony partnerships with UNEP – that stand between him and this God.

To be fair, there’s only so much that an inter-governmental agency like UNEP – beholden to its member governments – can really accomplish. That’s why it needs partners from corporate, civil society, activist and academic spheres. Some of us can easily say and do things that UNEP would, in all sincerity, like to — but cannot.

Satinder sounds like he can forge broad alliances that go beyond monopolist partnerships. Here’s wishing him every success….for everyone’s sake!

Photo courtesy UNEP Climate Neutral Network

Release Ozzy Ozone held prisoner by brand guardians!

In September 2007, I wrote about Ozzy Ozone, an energetic, cheerful little ozone molecule – part of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere that prevents the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet rays from coming through and causing skin cancer, cataract and other health problems.

Ozzy Ozone is part of a global public education effort by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to tell everyone how harmful UV rays are to our health, and how Ozzy and his fellow ozone molecules are literally protecting life on earth from being zapped out.

I called Ozzy the little molecule on a big mission — to tell all humans to soon phase out using certain chemicals that, when released to the air, go up and destroy his kind.

Last week, while attending a UNEP meeting in Bangkok to plan the next ozone communication strategy for Asia Pacific, I heard some disturbing news: little Ozzy has become a prisoner of his brand guardians. As a result, he is not as free as he could be to roam the planet, spreading the vital ozone message.

Anne Fenner, Information Officer of UNEP’s OzonAction Programme revealed how she routinely turns down requests to produce toys and other material using the popular character.

“I have had so many requests from companies, but we cannot allow commercial exploitation of this brand,” Anne said.

I was stunned. Here is one of the more popular communication products to emerge from the UN, not generally known for such successful engagement of popular culture. And there we were, brainstorming on ways to get the ozone message to large, scattered (and distracted) audiences.

Ozzy was created by a graphic artist in Barbados, as part of a government-supported campaign to raise public awareness on ozone layer thinning. This cartoon character served as a “mascot” and was very effective in raising awareness in Barbados. The cartoon series was printed in local newspapers. Additionally, promotional items produced for local public awareness and education campaigns using the Ozzy graphic include posters, key rings, rulers, erasers, refrigerator magnets, mouse pads, pens, pencils, stickers, and envelopes.

The character was so popular that UNEP struck a deal with Barbados to ‘globalize’ Ozzy. An animated video was produced, along with a dedicated website, comic strips and other media adaptations.

Ozzy has been a run-away success, giving UNEP a high profile, widely popular character — and a great deal of media coverage and interest. The kind of media engagement that is typically enjoyed by Unicef, the most media-savvy of all UN agencies.

But we now know that Ozzy’s brand guardians don’t allow him to go as far as he could. They may be playing by the rules, but do they realise that huge opportunities are being lost?

There we were, a small group of journalists, communicators, scientists and government officials discussing for three days how to get the biggest bang for our collectively limited buck where ozone messaging is concerned.

It was frustrating to know that the best brand ambassador has been locked up in brand integrity and copyright restrictions.

I suggested to Anne Fenner that protecting the brand integrity need not be so rigidly pursued. For example, careful franchising could be undertaken based on a set of guidelines — and the royalty could go into a trust fund that supports ozone communication work.

Indeed, the challenge for development communicators everywhere is to find the common ground between the public interest and the commercial interest. In this era of globalised media and CSR, the two interests are no longer mutually exclusive. Some might argue they never were.

The long-established copyright regimes themselves are being questioned, challenged and bypassed by a growing number of research, advocacy and activist groups. Many now publish their academic or artistic work under Creative Commons licenses, that enable their creators to be acknowledged and retain some control — and yet allow many types of uses without excessive restriction.

When TVE Asia Pacific recently released an Asian regional book called Communicating Disasters, our co-publisher UNDP Regional Centre in Bangkok proposed that the book be under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license. We were happy to go along.

UNEP has some catching up to do. Turning the pages of lavishly illustrated Ozzy Ozone comic story books (of which 3 titles have come out so far), I found that UNEP has the standard copyright restriction. However, they add a line: “This publication may be reproduced in whole or part and in any form for educational or non-profit purposes without special permission from the copyright holder, provided acknowledgement of the source is made.”

That’s encouraging – but not good enough. What happens if a commercially operated media organisation wants to use this content for public interest? Will they qualify under ‘educational or non-profit purposes’?

Probably not. And that’s when the dreaded copyright lawyers could come marching out.

It’s the assorted lawyers and over-cautious officials who are keeping Ozzy Ozone a virtual prisoner.

And sadly, little Ozzy is not alone. Everywhere in the publishing and media world, we can find many examples of how creative works are being held back – usually by over-protective lawyers or accountants. Sometimes that’s the case even if the artistes or media professionals themselves would much rather let go of the rights.

In July 2007, I wrote a blog post called ‘The lawyers who locked up the butterfly tree’ — which revealed how lawyers working for the publicly-funded BBC had systematically blocked a multi-award winning African documentary film from being used for environmental education, awareness and advocacy. All because the BBC had partly funded its production, and therefore had a claim on its copyright.

So here’s our plea to Ozzy’s brand guardians in UNEP: let him roam free, taking the vital message to millions. And while at it, let him make some money (from franchisees) which can suppot the rest of UNEP’s ozone communication work.

And if some spoilsport of a copyright lawyer gets in the way, tell him/her to take a beach vacation — without sunblock.

Related links:
Sep 2006: Make poverty a copyright free zone

May 2007: TVEAP renews call for poverty as a copyright free zone

Memories of Toyama: Japan Wildlife Film Festival

Image courtesy JWFF

The Japan Wildlife Film Festival opens today – 23 August 2007 – in Toyama, in eastern Japan.

As their website says: “Established in 1993, the Festival is held biennially. It started in the hope that by screening moving images of the wonders of wildlife and the co-existence of nature and people, we could help to increase understanding and awareness of the urgent need to protect and care for the natural world.”

The last Festival, in August 2005, received 331 film entries from 35 countries and some 30,000 people, including many school children, attended the public screenings staged throughout the Toyama region. This level of public participation is exceptional for an international film festival — and shows how well the organisers, the Nature Film Network, have engaged the local people.

International film-makers and broadcasters now know the Festival as one of the biggest of its kind in Asia.

I’m missing Toyama this year. I participated in the last two festivals and have fond memories — of watching great films, having excellent company and enjoying outstanding Japanese hospitality in the salubrious holiday city of Toyama.

In 2003, I was part of the festival’s international jury. Then at the 2005 festival, I was invited to give a talk about our Children of Tsunami media project, which at the time was documenting the personal recovery stories of eight families affected by the Asian Tsunami in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

In both years, a highlight of my experience was the opening evening reception, held at a traditional Japanese farm house restored by NFN and located a half-hour’s drive outside the city. There, the local people hosted us to food and beverages prepared at home. An evening of simple, unpretentious cultural exchange — with nothing ‘official’ about it!

That’s the character of NFN chairman Hirohisa Ota: a man of few words who leads by example and brings together a small but dynamic team of staff and volunteers to run the 4-day festival with clockwork precision.

The photo below shows international participants at JWFF 2005.

Photo from JWFF website

Image from JWFF website

List of finalist films competing in JWFF 2007

Read my earlier post on Toyama 2005: Lawyers who locked up the Butterfly Tree

How short is short today? Packaging Nature for today’s television viewers

On 15 July 2007, I wrote about the award-winning natural history film-maker Neil Curry, based in South Africa, whom I last met during the Japan Wildlife Film Festival in Toyama in the summer of 2005.

Most recently, Neil made The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree, which has won several of the industry’s top awards.

I’ve since heard from him, and want to share some of his views on how best to package Nature and wildlife for today’s easily-distracted, attention-challenged audiences. He is responding to my post on 13 July 2007 titled Mine is shorter than yours, yipee!


He says:

‘Mine is shorter than yours….’ is one of the issues I’ve been going on about for years and I’m delighted that Friends of the Earth has now come up with a competition for one-minute films. This ridiculous thing of the ‘standard’ broadcast slot for bluechip wildlife programmes being 52-minute is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons why the public’s view of Nature has become so ‘warped’.

You can’t sustain a 52-minute wildlife film without drama – so we end up with this on-going emphasis on killing, sex, things that are supposedly deadly to humans (everything from snakes and great white sharks to mosquitoes), and dramatic confrontations between macho men – and women – and animals. By insisting on these long films, television itself has actually ‘created’ the audience for wildlife violence – and I’ve been told by more than one commissioning editor that audiences aren’t interested in “place” and “habitat” films any more, they want to see big animals doing exciting things.

In short, Dallas with animals – wildlife “reality-TV”.

Based on my own experience, that’s rubbish. Yes, audiences want a well-told story but they can be equally fascinated by quite prosaic things in the complex inter-relationships of nature, provided the story is told properly. They don’t need all this ‘red in tooth and claw’ stuff. The superb, The Queen of Trees that is currently doing the rounds is a good example – as is the on-going popularity of Attenborough and some of the BBC’s mega-series.

In fact, the over-dramatised programmes often give a quite distorted view of what wildlife is really like. Most creatures don’t spend all their time fighting and killing one another, or looking for human beings to threaten and attack. But if film makers, no matter how serious they are about telling the truth, want to eat, have somewhere to live, educate their kids and so on, they simply have to comply with what the programmers want – and thus, the cycle continues. Of course, it sometimes backfires. Some years ago – unfortunately I can’t remember the exact details now – research in the UK found that school children on field trips into the countryside were bored, because “nothing was happening”. Wildlife programmes on television had led them to expect nature to be full of continuous action and excitement. If children find real nature and the countryside “boring”, imagine how that will influence them when they grow up and find themselves in positions of authority where they may have to make decisions about siting roads, factories, quarries and so on in otherwise unspoilt but “boring” countryside.


If television would just take some of their hour-long wildlife slots and break of them into shorter segments of 30 or even 15 minutes, they would open up the screens to hundreds, perhaps even thousands of fascinating stories about some of the wonders of nature that are astonishing and intriguing, and that would grab audience attention – without any of the drama that is needed to sustain 52 minutes. In my own files I have dozens of stories like that – and so probably, do most other wildlife film makers – but we just never get the chance to tell them because there’s almost no market for short wildlife films on television.

Lord Reith, father of the BBC, said the job of broadcasting was to inform, educate and entertain – but nowadays unfortunately, much of wildlife programming seems to have got itself stuck solely in the entertainment category. It’s a pity because it means a lot of stuff that could give audiences a better understanding of the other life we share this planet with, is largely kept off our screens.

In the circumstances, it’s a miracle that The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree ever got made. It says a lot for the courage and acumen of Mike Gunton, who was commissioning editor on The Natural World at the time, that he was prepared to buck the trend and take it on. There’s no sex, no killing, no violent confrontations – just a boring old tree and a lot of small-scale interactions going on around it, plus a few examples of the dreaded Homo sapiens (who doesn’t even exist in Nature if lots of the wildlife TV programmes are to be believed).

Pay-back time for film-makers: Go back to your locations!

“These days it’s simply not good enough to use the old response… “If people know about it they’ll care for it and do something”. Wrong. They’ll just go on being conned that it’s all perfect out there, with endless jungles, immaculate Masai Maras, and untouched oceans. What planet are they on about?”

These words come from Richard Brock, one of the world’s leading and most senior natural history film makers.

If you haven’t heard his name, chances are that you know at least some of his many creations: he worked in the BBC Natural History Unit producing, among others, the highly successful Life on Earth and Living Planet series presented by David Attenborough.

Image courtesy The Brock Initiative Image courtesy Brock Initiative

The BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) is a department of the BBC dedicated to making TV and radio programmes with a natural history or wildlife theme, especially nature documentaries. It celebrates 50 years in 2007.

Richard Brock worked with them for 35 of those 50 years. He left them a few years ago, according to his own website, ”concerned by the lack of willingness to address the real current state of the environment”.

He then started his own independent production company, Living Planet Productions, which has made over 100 films on a wide range of environmental topics, shown all over the world. As his archive of films and footage mounted up, Richard felt that there was something more, better, that could be done with this resource.

“We’ve been celebrating nature by bringing its wonders to the TV screen all over the world. Now that world is changing, faster and faster, and nature needs help. Films can do that, at a local level, be it with decision-makers in the government or in the village,” he says.

He adds: “When you consider the miles of footage and thousands of programs sitting in vaults out there unused, it seems tragic that the very wonders they celebrate are dwindling, often because no one tells the locals and tries to help. That is why I believe its Payback Time for the wildlife television.”

Thus the Brock Initiative was born. To quote from their website:
“He decided to set up the Brock Initiative, to use his archive of footage, and to ask others to do the same, to create new programs, not made for a general TV audience, but made for those who are really connected to the situation in hand: local communities, decision makers, even that one fisherman who uses dynamite fishing over that one coral reef. Its about reaching those who have a direct impact; reaching those who can make the difference.”

As he emphatically says: “Showing the truth on some minority channel is not the answer. Showing it where it counts, is.”

Image courtesy The Brock Initiative

I hope those development donors and corporate sponsors, who try to outdo each other in supporting programming going out on BBC World (an elite minority channel in most markets) hear people like Richard Brock — long-time BBC insiders who know what they are talking about.

Those who make documentaries on wildlife, natural history or environment (and wild-life of humans) are trapped in their industry’s many contradictions. They go on location filming to the far corners of the planet, capturing ecosystems, species and natural phenomena. Yet for a long time, many have avoided talking about or featuring the one species that has the biggest impact on Nature: Homo sapiens (that’s us!).

Whole series of wildlife documentaries have been made, by leading broadcasters and production houses of the east and west, without once showing a human being or human activity in them. Almost as if humans would ‘contaminate’ pristine Nature!

In recent years, more film-makers have broken ranks and started acknowledging the human footprint on the planet and its environment. But a good many documentaries are still made with ‘pure’ wildlife content, with not a thought spared on the wild-life of our species.

Richard Brock is one who has refused to follow the flock. And he has also punctured the highly inflated claims — promoted by BBC Worlds of this planet — that broadcast television can fix the world’s problems.

As we have found out here in Asia, it’s a judicious combination of broadcast and narrowcast that can work – and we still need the participation of teachers, activists and trainers to get people to think and act differently.

At their best, broadcasts can only flag an issue or concern to a large number of people. For attitudes and behaviour to change, that needs to be followed up by narrowcast engagement at small group levels.

Taking films to the grassroots need not be expensive, says Brock. In fact it can be done inexpensively.

These are not programmes for broadcast to western audiences demanding BIG productions – you are often showing films to people who have never even seen TV. The effort comes in showing the right thing, to the right people, in the right way, and not about expensive effects, top quality cameras or cutting edge effects.”

Using donated archive footage cuts costs dramatically. New footage, important for putting a film in a local context, can be taken on small miniDV cameras and editing can be done on any home computer. In this way, it becomes feasible to put together a film even for a very small, but crucial audience.

The Brock Initiative, started and funded by donations from its founder, has projects in Kenya, Madagascar, Tanzania, the UK and Indonesia.

Read more about the Indonesia project

They also offer wildlife and nature footage free to those who want to use moving images to make a difference.

Read Richard Brock’s formula for making films that make a difference!

As our species’ wild-life pushes our living planet closer to peril, we need many more Richard Brocks to try and reverse disturbing trends at the edges of survival — almost all of them in the global South.

It’s pay-back time, film-makers!

Related blog posts:
End this callous waste – open up broadcast archives for combating poverty and ignorance

Lawyers who locked up the butterfly tree

Anita Roddick, Angkor Wat and the Development Pill

Contact The Brock Initiative

Climate in Crisis and planet in peril – but we’re squabbling over copyrights!

Climate in Crisis - a global documentary

Climate in Crisis - a global documentary

On my recent visit to Tokyo for a regional workshop on changing climate and moving images, I watched a number of excellent documentary films on the subject. One of them was Crude: The Incredible Journey of Oil, the excellent Australian film that I wrote about in March.

Another was Climate in Crisis, an outstanding global documentary in two parts (2 x 52 mins) co-produced in 2006 by Japan’s public broadcaster NHK together with The Science Channel and ALTOMEDIA/France 5.

Directed by Fujikawa Masahiro, the film draws heavily on the Earth Simulator — one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers — which Japanese scientists used to project the climatic disasters in next 100 years. The system was developed in 1997 for running global climate models to evaluate the effects of global warming and problems in solid earth geophysics. It has been able to run holistic simulations of global climate in both the atmosphere and the oceans — down to a resolution of 10 km.

NEC Earth Simulator in Japan

NEC Earth Simulator in Japan

The results, captured in this documentary, are truly mind-boggling. Atmospheric temperatures may rise by as much as 4.2 degrees Celsius, more hurricanes may attack and deserts may spread from Africa to southern Europe, and half of the Amazon rainforest may be gone. Climate in Crisis shows a severe projection on environmental destruction based on rigorous scientific data and considers whether humankind can avoid this.

This film, made in the same year as Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth, has won several awards including the Earth Vision Award at the 15th Earth Vision Tokyo Global Environmental Film Festival.

I was curious why this excellent film – in my view, better made than Al Gore’s one – hasn’t been more widely seen, talked about and distributed. To be honest, I’d not even heard of this one until my Japan visit — and I try to keep myself informed on what’s new in my field of endeavour.

The reasons soon became apparent: copyright restrictions! The co-producers are keeping the rights so tight that only the highest bidders will be allowed to acquire it on a license fee.

This is a standard broadcast industry practice that didn’t surprise me. But I was taken aback by how jealously the rights are guarded. All other films that were part of our event, including high budget commercial productions like Crude, were screened to the public at the Parthenon in Tama New Town in Tokyo.

Not so with Climate in Crisis, which we – the overseas participants to the workshop – had to watch at a theatre inside NHK’s Tokyo headquarters. No public screening was possible. As we later heard, NHK itself was willing to allow a public screening (after all, it draws a good part of its income from the Japanese public), but their international co-producing partners, especially the Science Channel, would simply not agree to it. Wow.

Twenty centuries ago, emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Today, some people are squabbling over copyrights while the whole planet is in peril.

Earth in 2100 - as seen by Earth Simulator

Earth in 2100 - as seen by Earth Simulator

Our workshop participants came from solid backgrounds in broadcasting or independent film-making, and we are not naive activists asking hard-nosed broadcasters to let go of their precious rights which generates vital income. But we would have expected them to allow films such as Climate in Crisis to circulate a bit more freely in everybody’s interest.

This reminded me of correspondence I had last year with the Canadian producers of another outstanding climate film titled The Great Warming. The initial discussions with its director were promising, but when the distribution people started talking about ‘revenue optimising’, our negotiations stalled.

It also reminded me of similar experiences of other environment and natural history film makers, such as South Africa’s Neil Curry. He had a long struggle with the BBC to clear the non-broadcast use rights of his own film that he wanted to take back to the locations in Botswana where it was filmed.

Many broadcast and production companies in the west don’t realise that TV broadcasters in developing Asia operate on a very different basis. Talking about broadcast ‘pre-sales’ or ‘commissions’ loses meaning when many stations are operating on tiny budgets — or in some cases, no budgets — for factual content. Many are struggling to survive in tough, emerging economies.

Is this our future?

Is this our future?

TVE Asia Pacific operates a regional film distribution service that brings environment and development films within reach of such broadcasters. We operate without getting mired in license fees or royalties.

Our 2-day workshop called for climate change to be recognised as a ‘copyright free zone’. This would enable audio-visual media content on the subject to move freely across borders and to be used widely for broadcast and narrowcast purposes.

Here’s the full reference from our statement of concern:

“Prevailing copyright regimes prevent the sharing and wider use of outstanding TV programmes and video films on climate and development issues. We are deeply concerned that even content developed partly or wholly with public funding (government grants, donor funds or lottery funds) remain unfairly locked into excessive copyright restrictions. Sometimes film-makers and producers themselves are willing but unable to allow their creations to be used for non-commercial purposes by educational, civil society and advocacy groups. We appreciate the media industry’s legitimate needs for intellectual property management and returns on investment. At the same time, the climate crisis challenges us to adopt extraordinary measures, one of which can and should be recognising climate change as a ‘copyright free zone’. Such agreement would encourage media organisations and independent producers to share content across borders, and with entities outside the media industry engaged in climate education, advocacy and activism.”

Here’s the simple question I raised during the workshop, which is worth being posed to all those who hesitate to even discuss this issue:

Can anyone manage their intellectual property rights on a dead planet?

This is the real question!

Vulnerability Exposed: Micro films on how climate change affects YOU!

Vulnerability Exposed!

Vulnerability Exposed!

Never underestimate the power of moving images. Al Gore tipped the balance in the long-drawn climate change debate with his Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth. The rest is recent history.

Thanks to the film – and sustained advocacy of hundreds of scientists and activists – climate change is no longer a speculative scenario; it’s widely accepted. The challenge now is to understand how it impacts different people in a myriad ways.

Now the World Bank wants people to use their video cameras to capture how climate change may already be affecting their ways of living and working. The Bank’s Social Development Department has just announced the launch of a worldwide documentary competition that will highlight the social aspects of climate change as experienced and/or observed by the film-maker(s).

Called Vulnerability Exposed, the contest is open to anyone anywhere in the world who wishes to have their voice heard. The submitted films should innovatively illustrate the consequences of climate change through one of the following theme categories: conflict, migration, the urban space, rural institutions, drylands, social policy, indigenous peoples, gender, governance, forests, and/or human rights. The submission period ends on 24 October 2008.

Caroline Kende-Robb, Acting Director, Social Development Department, said, “There is a need to see climate change as an issue of global social justice. The rights, interests and needs of those affected by climate change must be acknowledged.”

Watch the Bank’s short video, where she explains further:

The contest has two award categories:
1) Social Dimensions of Climate Change Award (general category) – open to professional and amateur; and
2) Young Voices of Climate Change (youth category) – open to entries submitted by filmmakers under 24 years old.

Award winners will be chosen through a combination of public voting and a judging panel. The film with the most public votes in each theme category will receive honorable mention.

Judging process

Vulnerability Exposed film competition: Judging process

This contest indicates that the World Bank is slowly but surely opening up to the currently untapped communication potential of web 2.0 – the very point I made in a recent op ed essay.

There are several noteworthy aspects in this competition, some more positive than others. I offer this critique in the spirit of improving a commendable initiative.

Three cheers to the bank for accommodating both amateurs and professionals. It’s about time those who don’t video film for a living (some of who are no less talented in the craft) had more opportunities to showcase their products.

It’s good to see the preference for shorter films, in this contest defined between 2 and 5 mins in duration. This certainly resonates with TVE Asia Pacific’s experience with Asian broadcasters, many of who now prefer shorter films. Longer films have their place, of course, but shorter ones are clear favourites of 24/7 news channels and also online.

Most film contests are judged exclusively by an all-powerful jury (I’ve been on several over the years), but here the online public have a chance to vote for their favourite entries. Let’s hope the judges will consider the story telling power of entries as the most important deciding factor. (The examples in the YouTube film given above are misleading – they all seem extracts from expensively made documentaries.)

The big challenge for many aspiring contestants would be to relate climate change to daily realities in their societies. Despite global headlines and the development community’s current frenzy about it, climate change as a phrase and concept still isn’t clearly understood in all its ramifications. If science now knows 100 facts about the murky processes of climate change, the average public knows less than 25 and understands even less. So it will be interesting to see how entries relate the big picture to their individual small pictures.

I’m a bit disappointed that the World Bank is not offering any cash prize to the winners. Instead, “the winners will receive an all expenses paid trip to Washington, DC for a screening of their film and will have the opportunity to attend a series of networking and learning events organized by…the World Bank in December 2008.” This is all useful, but video – even at the low end – is not exactly cheap, and even labour of love creations cost money to make. We are currently running a comparable the Asia Pacific Rice Film Award – which seeks entries no longer than 10 mins on any aspect of rice – and despite being a non-profit, civil society initiative we have a prize of US$ 2,000 to the winner. And we wish we could offer more.

But my biggest concern is the unequal, unfair terms of copyrights found in the small print of the competition rules. This is where the lawyers have done their usual handiwork, and with the usually lopsided results. The World Bank wants all contestants to make absolutely sure that all material used is fully owned by the contestants, or properly licensed. That’s fine. But tucked away on page 7, under section 12 titled Entrant’s permission to the organiser, is a set of conditions which will allow all affiliated institutions of the World Bank group to use the submitted material for not just promoting this contest (a standard clause in most competitions), but for ‘climate change work program of the organiser’.

What this means, in simpler terms, is that without offering a single dollar in prize money, the World Bank is quietly appropriating the unlimited user rights for any and all the submitted material. These are the core materials in the moving images industry, and nothing is more precious to their creators.

I have long advocated a more balanced, equitable and liberal approach to managing copyrights and intellectual property by both the broadcast television industry and development community — especially where public funded creations are concerned. I have nothing but contempt for lawyers and accountants who often determine the copyrights policies in large broadcast and development organisations. They set out terms that may be justified in strict legal terms, but are totally unfair, unjust and, in the end, counterproductive to the development cause and process. It seems that while our friends in the social and communication divisions were not looking, the Bank’s lawyers have done their standard hatchet job.

While this doesn’t detract from the overall value of Vulnerability Exposed, it diminishes its appeal and potential. Many professional video film-makers who value their footage – gathered with much trouble and expense – may not want to sign future user rights away for simply entering this contest. And worse, the unsuspecting enthusiasts who don’t necessarily earn their living from making films – but are entitled to the same fair treatment of their creations – would be giving away material whose industrial value they may not even fully appreciate.

It’s certainly necessary and relevant for development organisations like the World Bank and the UN system to engage web 2.0. But they must be careful not to import or impose rigid, one-sided and outdated copyright regimes of the past on this new media.

I hope the Bank would consider revising these unfair copyright terms, and treat the submitted material with greater discretion and respect. If not, all entrants risk seeing their material popping out of bluechip films produced by top-dollar production companies in North America and Europe who have ‘mining rights’ to the Bank’s video archives.

Vulnerability Exposed can have more meanings than one. We’d rather not consider some.