Auntie gets it wrong

A pioneering use of technology by the BBC seems to have bitten the dust

If you had asked your average geek a few years ago what they thought of the BBC, more than likely, and so long as they didn't happen to work for Auntie's technical arm, you would have received a positive response. Back in 2003 at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Greg Dyke made an announcement that rocked the geek world. He launched the "Creative Archive" - an endeavour that promised to use the power of the internet to grant access to decades of the Beeb's archive footage.

The BBC's charter had always specified that the public should be able to tap in to the corporation's programming archive - but until the internet, universal access wasn't practical. By the dawn of broadband, the Beeb looked remarkably modern: while newspapers and commercial broadcasters bored technologists to tears pondering the fate of their own bottom lines, a gigantic content commissioner, funded directly by the corporation's licence-fee-paying audience, looked like an idea whose moment had come.

The bit that really inspired geeks about the Creative Archive wasn't the "archive", so much as the "creative". And that was because it sounded suspiciously like the Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig's Creative Commons idea - a set of off-the-peg legal licences designed to counter the restrictive nature of modern copyright law by seeding the growth of a pool of creative materials, available for "remix" by any ordinary Joe with a laptop and an imagination. Sure enough, it emerged that Lessig had talked to the BBC.

But then things started to fall apart. It began to emerge that, thanks to contract negotiations a decade earlier, the BBC owned hardly any of the rights to its archive. Rather, those rights belonged to each individual actor, musician, screenwriter and sound recordist involved. The BBC would need to seek permission even to release the archive for general consumption by the public, let alone allow the public to refashion it. And to ask all those individuals for permission simply was not feasible. Which sounds perfectly reasonable, until you consider that it means that all the programming that you and I have spent hundreds of pounds financing throughout our lives is likely to disappear as the medium on which it is stored simply rots.

The BBC Creative Archive launched as a pilot in 2005 with a negligible percentage of the BBC's archive made available to download. It has since shut down for evaluation. The feeling among insiders is that the idea will not resurface any time soon, and that attention will instead be focused on the BBC's iPlayer, a piece of technology that many people will not even be able to use, thanks to some features being compatible only with Windows XP and Vista.

I don't need to tell you what kind of a response you'd get now, were you to ask your average geek what he thinks of the BBC.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom