WTF... should I pay to download BBC shows?
Project Barcelona peeves the freetards
Feature The outgoing Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, recently announced plans for Project Barcelona, a download store  for material from the BBC archives.
At the moment, you can watch most BBC programmes for seven days after broadcast, free of charge using iPlayer . In a few cases, a whole series may be available for a little longer. But after that initial catch-up window, it disappears. If you want a copy after that, you’ll have to wait until the DVD comes out, or buy a download from a store like Apple’s iTunes store.
There are a few other stores that have BBC content, but between them what’s on offer still adds up to a tiny fraction of all the material that the BBC has in its archives. There’s a wealth of material that people remember fondly which has never found its way to VHS or DVD, let alone download stores.
Project Barcelona will, hopefully, make much more of this available. And with its knowledge of the programmes, the BBC can provide much more interesting ways to navigate the content than you find on, say, iTunes.
But why bother?
Over on the Which Conversation blog , they’ve asked the question “would you pay to download BBC programmes?” and a surprising number of people have selected “No” as their answer.
We’ve all - or most of us, at any rate - paid for the BBC, right? So why the heck should we pay to download programmes. They’re ours, aren’t they? We own the BBC, we pay for it, so we own the things it makes. If you have a TV licence, then you should get a code that validates you to play any content you like, whenever you like.
That’s an appealing argument. It appears clear and simple to understand. Thanks to some of the bizarre actions of BBC management over the years, it’s no surprise that there are people who are so thoroughly exasperated with the Corporation they’d love to get back some of the money they’ve put in.
The fact is, though you may pay your licence fee, and that does indeed fund the BBC, you don’t own the material. We may, in theory, own the BBC collectively, just as we could be said to have once owned British Telecom collectively. But that didn’t stop the government selling it to some of us all over again. Nor does owning shares in BT mean you can just borrow one of its vans when you fancy.
The ownership of creative work is very seldom absolute – there are lots of people involved, including writers, directors, actors and more. All of them will have contracts, and in many cases, those contracts will long predate internet downloads. In some, they’ll even predate the idea of home video sales.
Copyrights and wrongs
Often, when those contracts were drawn up, there was a concept of “residuals” - fees which are paid when something is broadcast, each time. Some people object to this as a matter of principle, but many people in creative industries are poorly paid, and residual fees are a vital part of making up for poor up-front payments.
In some cases, too – and increasingly now – the BBC may not even own all the rights to the programmes that it has broadcast. Programmes that you may think are indelibly linked with the BBC, like Spooks, are not actually made by it. They are made on its behalf by production companies – and those companies own some of the rights. That’s one reason why shows aren’t always available on iPlayer. And these reasons are why we don’t really own the content ourselves, no matter how many years we’ve paid the licence fee.
So, even when the BBC does provide downloads of material from the archives, it’s not free of cost. There may be a whole raft of different fees that have to be paid to people, and time spent negotiating those fees in the case of programmes made so long ago that none of this had ever been thought of.
Format shifting and infrastructure
There’s something else to remember too. While a lot of the programmes in the BBC archive have already been converted into formats suitable for online delivery, so that stores like iTunes can sell them, many more have not. Some will be in other digital formats, while others may still be on analogue media that has yet to be digitised.
That takes time. In the case of some older material, it will also require many hours of restoration, as has been done with many Doctor Who stories.
Then there’s the delivery infrastructure. If Project Barcelona takes off, it will require a huge infrastructure of servers and bandwidth to deliver material, all of which has to be paid for.
If you really want BBC content to be available for download free, “because I’ve paid the licence fee”, then I’d argue that what you’re actually arguing is that the BBC ignore any rights other people may have in that content; and that it fund the digitisation of material and provide the download infrastructure out of the current licence fee.
And that, ultimately, means that there will be less money to spend on commissioning new programmes. People complain enough about repeats as it is. Do you really want to force more cost cutting, so that you can download programmes free, and in the process urge the BBC to ignore its contractual obligations?
I hope that, when it comes to thinking of it like that, most people will realise that it’s not really a practical proposition for the BBC to give free access to the archives – certainly not if we want them to continue to be able to attract creative people to work for them, and to have money for the new material that results. ®
A longer, unedited Director's Cut version of this article  can be found on Nigel's Gone Digital blog. Copyright © 2012, Nigel Whitfield.