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British Film Institute's Mediatheque presents a great opportunity

If it wasn't for the rights holders

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Every so often one is privileged to bump into an IT application which prompts the response: "yes, that is damned good". One such, in my opinion, is the Mediatheque inside the British Film Institute (BFI) building in London's South Bank complex.

What is a "Mediatheque"? For anyone who is a straight forward film buff or fan of old cinema, a cinematic historian or, like me, simply old enough to have memories of times worth being nostalgic about, it really is the place to go see.

But while it is damned good in terms of the brute application of technology, it could be so much better if it was not for the intrusion of that hoary old issue, the ownership and control of "rights".

The BFI has been working with HP for some time on building a system that will stream video to a number of workstation terminals. It was first announced, with film director Anthony Minghella cutting the metaphorical cake, back in February. Now, it is ready for the public.

The Mediatheque is a room within the BFI building where the public can sit at one of those 14 workstation terminals and, having registered with the staff and got a log-in number, watch any one (or more) of some 300 different films or TV programmes currently on the system, all for free. They range from old BBC drama productions such as Abigail's Party, through to those wonderful old Central Office of Information "instructional" films from the 1950s and before.

The technology behind this is not startlingly new, but it demonstrates extremely well what it can achieve. The 14 workstations use the PC Blade model, with large specialist displays, mice, and keyboards separated from the system units by repeaters and cabling. Each is fed video and associated contextual data at 4 Mbits/sec and there is a very clear UI with which to navigate round the archive.

These are driven by three Proliant servers, one acting as the database server and the other two as web servers. They are fed via high-speed switches by a two TeraByte StorageWorks system. This allows 200 hours of digitised content from the BFI archives. The plan is that the BFI system will grow to the StorageWorks maximum capacity of 16.4 TeraBytes, and plans also exist to open other Mediatheques around the country.

But even this will only scratch the surface of the more than 230,000 films and 675,000 TV programmes the make up the current BFI National Archive. Yes, it would be asking a lot, both of technology and some Government budget, to attempt that lot, but some of the problem could be solved if it became a paying service.

Yet the BFI is restricted to keeping the service free via a mixture of politics and rights ownership. The criteria for choosing what appears there is not what is technically easiest, but which rights owners are willing to let their material appear at all. Indeed, some are happier to allow free access than to charge people. It seems that, once money is charged, they all appear clutching but contracts, lawsuits, and the like.

OK, that is no doubt their right, but it does seem short-sighted when between them HP and the BFI have come up with a mechanism that opens up a huge entertainment and information resource which could not only benefit and entertain people far better than the nine-millionth repeat of Star Trek on yet another obscure and unwatched TV channel, but also very easily and simply make money for everybody involved.

In fact, the Mediatheque system is only a cough and spit away from being ready to operate over the web, allowing millions to sign up and exploit it mercilessly. The BFI has already developed software that could make the foundations of a billing system.

But it is all rather academic, and in its own way one of the best examples of how the exploitation of technology has far outstripped the wit of rights owners to understand the potential that stands before them.

We now have the situation, of which this is the best possible example, of the unrobbery. With the Mediatheque the BFI has a system that could make all the rights holders richer – some a good bit so – for no outlay other than a squiggle of ink on a contract. So, naturally, most of them refuse point-blank, even though most of them would make far more money through the drip feed of this annuity business model than they ever will from the occasional TV rights deal. ®

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