net.wars: The BBC's shagging marmots

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 30 May 2004

The worst part about following the file-sharing wars is watching the media - no matter how much journalism you do, the media is always "them" - paint the story in simplistic terms: artists versus pirates. In fact, artists versus pirates is what artists call contract time when negotiating with any of the major media owners, and the file-sharing wars would be more correctly characterised as rights holders versus a lot of different kinds of people who are not always doing anything illegal.

Wendy M Grossman

And then there's the BBC. Last September at the Edinburgh Television Festival, then head Greg Dyke announced an initiative to put the BBC's vast archive online. This was, of course, fantastic news. Not because it means, oh, gee, free access to Coupling (!) but because it means that acres and acres of material that now never sees the light of day will become accessible. And the BBC, unlike many commercial broadcasting companies, knows it can afford to do this: the programmes are paid for through the public's licence fees, and most of them are not now producing revenues. (Even if they were, the overwhelming experience of those who have so far put their work online for free is that doing so increases sales. Am I bitter because we put my 1998 book net.wars online for free and I don't get Cory Doctorow's speaking fees for making his books freely downloadable? I don't know, ask Bruce Sterling, who did it first or Geoff Ryman, who did it second.)

But now Greg Dyke is no more -

Wednesday evening, the Oxford folks who are working on porting the Creative Commons licence to the UK convened a meeting to hear what's likely to happen with the BBC's plans now. The good news, according to the project's director, is that the BBC is still committed to the scheme and the plans are going ahead.

The bad news, so to speak, is that what's going to be released first is what someone has waggishly dubbed "shagging marmots". Or, to be more precise, wildlife documentaries. See, it's not just that the BBC owns those films and they don't have to worry about paying royalties to scriptwriters or producers. It's that there aren't any actors to demand residuals. At least, until the marmots get a good manager and form a union.

This is where the whole business model of the TV and film industry is such a difficulty. An author can decide to put a piece of work online and consult no one else. The same is true for bands or solo musicians; even if they have hired session musicians to play on specific tracks, the session musicians do not retain rights or require royalty payments. TV and film, however, are collaborative media, and the exposure and money they generate have spawned an intricate array of rights that must be cleared before anything can be released. In one sense, this is a good thing: why should an actor's, musician's, or screenwriter's work go on generating profits for some faceless, bureaucratic corporation with no reward to the artists? But it's a nightmare thing if what you are concerned about is the continued expansion of the public domain.

The late John Diamond used to carp at the royalty structure, saying that if you hired a plumber to build a bathtub you didn't make further payments to him based on how often you used it, even if you began opening your bathroom to public trade and charging admission. Since he tended to make these statements in a forum full of writers, he tended to meet with a lot of argument.

Basically, it comes down to whether you think you're selling a service (writing an article, making a bathtub) or a finished product built on original ideas that no one else could have made that you graciously allow Rupert Murdoch or some other little man to market and distribute for you. My guess is that if you could sell further copies of the bathtub that made it hard for the plumber to sell his services to make more of them himself, he'd be demanding royalties quickly enough.

In any event, the BBC is the ideal organisation to start the process of opening our radio and television past to public access. It is respected worldwide for the quality of its productions. It has a long history. It is paid for in licence fees that remove it somewhat from the ordinary commercial pressures - I used to resent this as a form of extortion, but one day I did some arithmetic and realised that if I consumed nothing else from the BBC's output all year except the 109 hours of Wimbledon coverage, I'm paying less than £1 an hour. That's cheap for any kind of entertainment, and there's no advertising. And if the licence fee also pays for the BBC to take the lead in showing what can be done with digital media, then I'm all for it.

Personally, I love the idea that the tens of thousands of hours of programming in the BBC's history will be relaunched. I would like, if the All-England Club doesn't get huffy, to be able to watch some of those classic tennis matches they don't show during rain delays at Wimbledon. Even more fun would be browsing old science programmes and watching them seriously explain things that have since been disproved (there are bound to be things like this), and old news programmes playing "spot the politician we now know was lying". I hope this archive makes it online. And I hope that whatever geographical identification system they use recognises my IP address as sited in the UK.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).