September 16, 2004

BBC planning to open source its archives

Author: Fergus Cassidy

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), one of the world's largest public service networks, will shortly launch what it hails as a pioneering
new approach to public access rights, and it is turning to the open source community to contribute to its successful rollout.

Announced last year, the Creative Archive initiative aims to put the
entire archive of BBC material online. The first phase will launch this fall,
with about 2,000 factual clips of up to three minutes long, mainly from its
natural history archive.

'Logical extension' of public service mission

As a broadcaster funded entirely by public license fees, the BBC sees
the building of the Creative Archive as a logical extension of its public
service remit. Material in the archive will be based on a licensing model
developed by Creative Commons.
This would allow material to be downloaded and used for whatever purpose on
whatever device, so long as it is not put to commercial use.

Paul Gerhardt, joint director of the Creative Archive, said he hoped
"the Creative Archive can establish a model for others to follow, providing
material for the new generation of digital creatives and stimulating the
growth of the creative culture in the U.K."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights campaign
group, provided written
testimony last Saturday before a U.K. government committee evaluating the
future role of the BBC.

Cory Doctorow, the EFF's European Affairs coordinator, said the
"building of the Creative Archive is a watershed moment in the history of
the BBC and of the world. It has the power to strengthen cultural identity
of Britons and to lift the world to new heights of creativity, freedom, and

In order to reach the broadest range of people and devices, the BBC has
also been working for the last couple of years on a video codec for internet
streaming called Dirac.

According to the BBC's Research and Development unit, the broadcaster
"would like to collaborate with the open source community, academics, and
others to produce an open codec. We welcome help and support in creating an
open and freely available compression system based on this technology."

Dirac was submitted as a SourceForge project last February, and
a 0.4.2 Alpha version was released last week. It is licensed under GPL, LGPL,
and the Mozilla Public License.

Cost still a major concern

Cost is a serious issue which the BBC is determined to address. Tim
Borer, Dirac project manager, explained, "Ultimately, we would like to
support millions of users with streaming services. It is uneconomic to use a
codec with a per-user license."

One of the other aspects to the development of an open source approach
is the BBC's own public service origins. "We have a different ethos to a
commercial company," said Borer. "Open source software development is really
a parallel development. It's got the same ethos."

Fergus Cassidy is a technology columnist with The Sunday Tribune and a regular
contributor to NewsForge and ITMJ.

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