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!

Al Jazeera shares broadcast footage through Creative Commons

Al Jazeera has done it again.

They were the first mainstream news broadcaster to offer most of its content on YouTube. And now, they have started sharing their news footage online through a Creative Commons license.

Uncommon move, once again!

Uncommon move, once again!

This allows others to download, share, remix, subtitle and eventually rebroadcast (or webcast) the material originally gathered by Al Jazeera’s own reporters or freelancers. It has the potential to revolutionise how the media industry gathers and uses TV news and current affairs footage – a lucrative market where there are only a very few suppliers operating at global scale.

Al Jazeera’s uncommon sharing has started with the network’s coverage of the conflict in the Gaza strip, Palestine. Each day they plan to add the latest footage coming from Gaza. Additional Gaza footage from the start of the war is to be made available shortly.

This is the first time that video footage produced by a news broadcaster is released under the ‘Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution’ license which allows for commercial and non-commercial use.

“We have made available our exclusive Arabic and English video footage from the Gaza Strip produced by our correspondents and crews” says the introductory text in Al Jazeera Creative Commons Repository. “The ongoing war and crisis in Gaza, together with the scarcity of news footage available, make this repository a key resource for anyone.”

Gaza in darkness

Gaza in darkness

The website adds: “This means that news outlets, filmmakers and bloggers will be able to easily share, remix, subtitle or reuse our footage.”

Under the Creative Commons framework, Al Jazeera seeks no payment (licensing fees) of any kind. Users are free to reuse the material with acknowledgement to Al Jazeera. This means such users must attribute the footage to Al Jazeera (“but not in any way that suggests that we endorse you or your use of our work”). They are also required to leave the Al Jazeera logos intact, give reference to the Al Jazeera Creative Commons Repository, and the ‘Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution’ license itself.

Says Joi Ito, CEO of Creative Commons: “Video news footage is an essential part of modern journalism. Providing material under a Creative Commons license to allow commercial and amateur users to share, edit, subtitle and cite video news is an enormous contribution to the global dialog around important events. Al Jazeera has set the example and the standard that we hope others will follow.”

Gaza under siege...

Gaza under siege...

Professor Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons, has hailed this initiative: “Al Jazeera is teaching an important lesson about how free speech gets built and supported. By providing a free resource for the world, the network is encouraging wider debate, and a richer understanding.”

Al Jazeera – which means ‘the island’ or ‘the peninsula’ in Arabic – started out in 1995 as the first independent Arabic news channel in the world dedicated to providing comprehensive television news and live debate for the Arab world. Al Jazeera English, the 24-hour English-language news and current affairs channel, was launched in 2006 and is headquartered in Doha, Qatar. The organisation is the world’s first global English language news channel to be headquartered in the Middle East.

On this blog, we have been critical cheerleaders of Al Jazeera. We hailed their commitment to present the majority world’s voice and perspective in international news, but expressed our dismay on how hard Al Jazeera English channel’s aping of BBC World TV. We have sometimes questioned or challenged the ethics of how they sourced or filmed their stories.

Screams, amplified by media?

Screams, amplified by media?

But we have no hesitation in applauding their sharing of news footage. This move makes it easier for many television stations, websites and bloggers to access authentic moving images from the frontlines of news — we certainly hope Gaza marks only the beginning of AJ’s sharing.

It would also make commercial distributors of news and current affairs footage a bit nervous, for such material trades in hundreds or thousands of dollars per second. The logistical difficulties in gathering such footage, and sometimes the enormous risks involved to the news crews, partly explains the high cost. But the small number of suppliers and syndicators has made it possible for high prices to be maintained. If Al Jazeera sustains its sharing, that could mark the beginning of the end for another pillar of the mainstream media industry.

All images used in this blog post are courtesy Al Jazeera websites