Taped at the BBC

Can the Beeb put its entire archive on the Web?

For those of us still debating whether to shell out the 40-odd bucks for Fawlty Towers: The Complete Collection on DVD, BBC Director-General Greg Dyke may have settled the matter this weekend. At the end of his speech to an annual TV industry conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, Dyke announced that the Beeb plans to put its enormous TV and radio archives online and to allow anyone to download them—free—for non-commercial use. “Under a simple licensing system, we will allow users to adapt BBC content for their own use,” Dyke said. “We are calling this the BBC Creative Archive.”

Giving away the BBC’s content online is an eye-popping proposal, in part because it’s such an ambitious project. The BBC produces eight TV channels and 10 radio networks, and it broadcasts the news in 43 languages worldwide. It’s been doing television since 1936, and radio since 1922. How much of the Beeb’s voluminous output could it really put online?

Dyke and the BBC press office have refused to give out further details, but Beeb staffers had already discussed the project with two of the Net’s leading big brains, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig and Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle. Lessig chairs the Creative Commons project, which has drafted a set of free license agreements for people who want to give away their writing, art, or other works online without having their intellectual property claimed and resold by someone else. In both technical and legal terms, Kahle and Lessig agree: It would be easy for the BBC to put its future programming online, but tougher to pull old tapes from the vault.

Kahle’s napkin math on the project goes like this: DVD-quality video requires 3 megabits to 5 megabits of data per second. Over a year, that works out to about 10,000 gigabytes of disk space to store the ouput of one BBC channel, not including reruns and off-air time. That sounds like a lot—10 terabytes—but it’s not uncommon for a single array of disksin a corporate server room to hold hundreds of terabytes at the ready for instant access. Kahle’s estimate, based on his 9/11 Television Archive project, is that a rack of low-cost Linux machines could store and serve one channel-year of television, plus a backup copy, on less than $50,000 worth of disks at today’s prices.

By the time the BBC gets rolling, you might as well cut that number in half: Disk prices have been falling even faster than CPU speeds are rising, halving every nine months by some estimates. If that rate continues, in three years, a year’s worth of BBC One would fit on less than $4,000 of disk space. Serving those bits to Web surfers worldwide could be done by expanding the Beeb’s existing deal with Akamai, which operates a global network of high-speed Web servers. (MSNBC, which served 85 million video clips during the Iraq war, is another Akamai customer.)

With today’s production software, digitizing the Beeb’s shows to disk as they air or uploading a copy of each segment separately as it’s produced would be easy. But what about the old shows? They can be digitized en masse from tape at an in-house cost of about $15 per hour of material, Kahle estimates. That adds up to around $100,000 per channel per archived year, which suggests it may be better to cherry-pick the best of the Beeb rather than try to upload the whole thing.

The real roadblock to putting the old shows online isn’t technical. It’s legal. The Creative Archive’s license could allow unlimited viewing, editing, and reuse of the digitized BBC programs, which are funded by an annual TV fee (don’t call it a tax unless you’re ready for a pub brawl) on UK viewers. The archive’s license would contain specific language to prohibit resale or any use the Beeb sees as an attempt to cash in on Britain’s public property. Here’s one of the many thorny questions the project will raise: If Google crawls and indexes the whole thing, does that count?

Whatever the new license’s terms, though, it can’t just be applied retroactively to existing material. As record companies and book publishers have already learned, the technical work of digitizing and distributing old works is far easier than resolving legal agreements that were crafted in the analog era. Until BBC lawyers go through the exhaustive work of clearing the rights to redistribute the old shows online, we won’t know if the Creative Archive will include John Cleese classics or just old News 24 clips.