Sunday April 24, 2005
The Observer,6903,1468695,00.html

Photography shapes our world – and our perception of it. Think of the Vietnam war and what comes unbidden into your mind? Here’s my guess: that photograph of the naked little girl running in terror after a napalm attack. Marilyn Monroe? That wonderful picture of her standing over a ventilator outlet with her skirt swirling up. The liberation of France? Henri Cartier-Bresson’s shot of a woman collaborator being denounced in the street. And so it goes: we think in images. And many, if not most of them, are still provided by photography.
But then ask yourself: what if, when the technology was being invented, the law had required that before you took a photograph of anyone or anything, you had to ask permission? Imagine how restricted photography – both as reportage and art – would have been. And how impoverished our culture as a result.

Now spool forward a century or so. A film-maker is shooting a low-budget documentary about a musical performance. He discovers that the character of Homer Simpson appears for three-and-a-half seconds, on a barely visible television, in the background of a key shot. In accordance with the strict intellectual property (IP) laws that apply today, he has to ask broadcaster Fox, owner of The Simpsons , for permission to include the shot. The response? Sure – on payment of a $10,000 fee.

That’s the world we now inhabit. And if the big multimedia organisations get their way, control of intellectual property will become even tighter. Until recently, everything was going their way. Clueless legislators were bamboozled by lobbying propaganda about the need to protect ‘property’ and stamp out ‘piracy’ and ‘theft’. Mass media – generally owned by outfits with a vested interest in strong IP law – reported the issue in terms that were at best uninformed and at worst rabidly partisan.

And nobody, beyond a few isolated voices, spoke out for the public interest. Or pointed out the implications for free culture of a world in which every idea, and every expression of an idea, is ‘owned’ by someone (usually a company). Nobody asked what would become of music if every songwriter had to pay a royalty on every idea they’d borrowed from earlier songs. Or what would happen to film-making if the rights to every out-of-focus billboard, chair, poster or magazine cover had to be cleared and paid for before movies could be released.

The answer, of course, is simple. It is that creativity would be stifled because the barrier to entry to the market for cultural products would be too high for everyone except corporations. There would still be innovation and competition, but only on the terms that multimedia conglomerates would allow. The Disneys, Time-Warners, Pearsons and Bertelsmanns of this world would do fine. And everyone else would be kept in their place as passive consumers of whatever content-owners deigned to provide for their entertainment.

Until recently, this was the way the world was heading. But now something significant has happened to buck the trend. The BBC – the world’s greatest creator of high-quality multimedia products – has finally launched its Creative Archive. The project – first announced by former director-general Greg Dyke in August 2003, and much delayed as BBC staff grappled with the rights issues implicit in it – will allow British residents to download clips of BBC factual programmes from for non-commercial use, keep them on their PCs, manipulate and share them, thereby making the BBC archives more accessible to licence-fee payers.

The content is not available yet but the licences under which it will be provided have now been published. In the next, pilot, phase of the project the Creative Archive will make 100 hours of BBC content available. The early stuff will come from the corporation’s stupendous archive of nature and wildlife programmes, for two reasons: the IP issues are less complex because the BBC owns most of the rights; and nature programming will be of immediate use to important target groups, like schoolchildren doing their own video projects. And although some people are critical of this (one cynic described the content as ‘shagging marmots’), there’s no doubt about where this is heading. The world’s leading public-service broadcaster is declaring it believes that creative output for which the public has paid should be in the public domain.

This is big news. Some years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology blew the nascent educational-content business out of the water by making its courseware available for free on the web. Who would pay for content from Mickey Mouse universities when MIT’s was free? By challenging the IP mania that threatens to engulf us, the Creative Archive project is doing something similar. And in the process showing us what public-service broadcasting is for.,6903,1468695,00.html