BBC's commitment to building public value

In the introduction to Building Public Value, a document outlining the British Broadcasting Corporation’s long-term goals, BBC Chairman Michael Grade describes a vision for the publicly-funded broadcaster that supports innovation, equity, and most importantly, universality:

…Some key principles cannot be up for negotiation if the BBC is to remain recognisably the BBC. These are that the BBC must be available to everyone, deliver value to everyone and be open to everyone. The public interest must remain at the heart of all the BBC does. It must remain absolutely independent from political and commercial influence. And it must have the ability to invest for the long term, to incubate talent, to innovate and bear the risks that innovation brings.

As the document describes in great detail, the BBC plans to create public value in the future by transforming Britain a fully digital nation, rooting all of its programming in quality and creativity, and embracing new uses of digital technology to make “BBC into an open cultural and creative resource for the nation.” The last goal seems especially relevant to us, and already several efforts are underway that signal the BBC’s commitment to free culture ideals.

Most recently, the BBC has listed several of its open source projects at Among the software is a cross-platform video codec (Dirac), a Java API for working with TV programming metadata (TV-Anytime Java API), and a testbed architecture for media delivery systems (Kamaelia). The site also explains why open source is important to the BBC:

For the BBC, open source software development is an extension of our Public Service remit. Releasing open source software helps our audience get additional value from the work they’ve funded, and also get tools for free that they couldn’t get any other way. It also allows people outside the BBC to extend projects in such a way that may in future be used in the BBC.

In fall 2004, the BBC launched the Creative Archive, a service allowing people to download clips BBC factual programms for non-commercial use. The license for such content is based on the Creative Commons model, allowing (as the banner touts) to rip, mix, and share.

Efforts like these make it clear that the BBC understands the potential of digital creativity and public value. Hopefully, the BBC will not loose sight of its goals and will continue to push for projects that benefit all who participate in them (and even those who don’t).

In a slightly related (and unfortunate) note, classical music labels are attacking the BBC for providing free downloads to all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies during a month-long period, which is now over. Anthony Anderson, managing director of the Naxos label, voices his complaint: “I think there is a question of whether a publicly funded broadcaster should be doing this and there is the obvious issue that it is devaluing the perceived value of music. You are also leading the public to think that it is fine to download and own these files for nothing.”

When music executives equate downloading free files to futile consumption, they fail to take into account all the non-material benefits of opening up a musical collection, even temporarily. Of the million-plus downloads of the symphonies, a good percentage were probably from people who may never have listened to any of Beethoven’s symphonies besides the Fifth, or who curiously stumbled onto the page and wanted to broaden their cultural horizons. Even if this were not the case, and all the downloads came from Beethoven aficionados, then at least those people gained the privilege — and pleasure — of listening to more recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies. The end result is certainly not “owning these files for nothing.”

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