Ambassadors from two media worlds met in Boston last month to explore how and whether public broadcasters can join the open content movement cheered on by a new breed of media consumers — bloggers, citizen journalists and leading-edge educators who want public TV and radio to open their archives to participatory media.
Boston’s WGBH convened the invitation-only conference Sept. 19-21  to get pubcasters exchanging ideas with open content proponents and questioning assumptions that copyrights will always constrain how content is used.
“There’s a recognition that public broadcasting needs to be more open — that people are beginning to expect that, and our audience is beginning to expect that,” said Dennis Haarsager, g.m. of KWSU in Pullman, Wash. “The implication is that if we don’t, those who find it valuable will go elsewhere.”
The 50 conference attendees from academia, web publishing and pubcasting represented two very different populations, said Patricia Aufderheide, executive director of American University’s Center for Social Media. “One is just beginning to entertain the idea of whether public television should offer open content,” Aufderheide said. “The other population is living in a world where open content already exists and is moving beyond public broadcasting.”
“Not everybody was singing out of same hymn book,” Haarsager said. Pubcasting producers are much more conservative than new-media makers about protecting the integrity of their finished programs, he said. “And then you’ve got the poor lawyers caught in between who are trying to make it work.”
The concept of open content goes beyond the audio and video streams offered by many pubcasting websites. It calls for content creators—writers, filmmakers, musicians, photographers and scholars—to publish their material on the Web under licenses that allow others to incorporate it into their work and share it with the world. Using Creative Commons licenses or other alternatives to traditional copyrights, content creators can put restrictions on reuse of their work, most frequently permitting only noncommercial distribution of the resulting derivative works.
The conference concluded with a session on “next steps,” but participants interviewed by Current did not expect a fast march in any particular direction.
Pubcasters want to learn more about how their existing online content is used, according to Maria Thomas, v.p. of NPR digital media. Such assessments will guide decisions about what content to offer in the future and set guidelines for measuring its public service value.
Public broadcasting’s mission is to serve educators and promote civic participation, but its reliance on professional production methods has been a barrier to independent filmmakers and bloggers who create the web content that now often drives civic discourse, said Andy Carvin, NPR senior production manager for online communities and a blogger for PBS TeacherSource.
These citizen journalists “want to find ways to interact with public broadcasting content” and use it in ways that public broadcasters themselves would never dream of on their own, Carvin said.
“The public has more creative ideas and potential uses for content than public broadcasting itself can come up with,” Carvin said. During his presentation at the conference, Carvin introduced pubcasters to Digital Tipping Point (digitaltippingpoint.com), a web-based film project about the open source movement. Video-makers contribute and share material and join online forums about plot points and other film elements. Carvin also showed off the Echo Chamber Project (echochamberproject.com), an open source collaborative documentary on television news coverage prior to the Iraq War.
“There was such intense curiosity among people attending the conference that it’s worth doing some experiments,” Carvin said. “The quibbles were about what it might look like and how bold it should be.”
During the conference, WGBH unveiled its experiment in video blogging (streams.wgbh.org/sandbox). It offers 24 video clips under a Creative Commons license for downloading and editing into “mash-ups.” The project was modeled on the BBC’s Creative Archive, a much larger database of archival news footage and other content that the British network offered under a permissive license similar to Creative Commons [earlier article]. The Beeb is now assessing the public service value of the idea.
Sandbox is “a teeny, teeny, teeny thing,” said Denise DiIanni, executive-in-charge of the WGBH Lab and Boston Media Productions, who spurred her staff to prepare Sandbox for a soft launch at the conference. The site invites feedback and mash-up submissions, and the Lab plans to add clips as its lawyers clear rights to offer them under Creative Commons license.
“It’s important that we be part of this and push ourselves to question our biases and assumptions,” DiIanni said. The open media community is passionate about working with pubcasting, and the field stands to learn a lot by including them in experimental projects.
To Carvin and other open content proselytizers Sandbox demonstrates how wide the gap is between public broadcasters and the new media community. “It’s limited—I would hardly call it a database of videos,” Carvin said, referring to Sandbox. Video bloggers complained that a WGBH logo appeared on each of the clips.
“There were so few examples of anything public television is doing in open content,” Aufderheide said. While it’s a breakthrough for WGBH, the Sandbox launch was somewhat underwhelming to those who want access to pubcasting’s deep content archives. “This is not a criticism—it’s a measure of where public TV is in addressing the challenge of the emerging participatory media practice,” she said.
One presentation that seemed to impress both camps was a demo of MITOpenCourseWare (ocw.mit.edu/index.html), a website offering free access to materials from some 1,200 courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to Haarsager.
“There are standard classroom lectures with syllabuses and notes that are available to anyone who wants to go through the site,” he said. “So if you’re a professor at East Elbow State University, you can look at their approach to a particular topic and learn from that. That’s an interesting development.”
Several participants described two presentations as particular highlights.
James Boyle, a professor at Duke University Law School, laid out his case for breaking the stranglehold of copyright law, urging public broadcasters to initiate a test case expanding fair use of copyrighted materials.
“He succeeded in being provocative without insulting the sensibilities of public broadcasters,” said Carvin, but his proposal for a test case “was treated like a sidebar.”
The idea didn’t take off for two reasons, according to Aufderheide. Pubcasters “don’t see themselves as the deep-pocketed and secure institutions that Boyle described them as,” she said. In addition, broadcasters themselves hold valuable rights they hope to license to others.
A better strategy for pubcasters, and one that Boyle also discussed, would be to employ fair use, Aufderheide said. “It’s far more feasible—and congenial—for broadcasters to seize the rights they clearly have, and ones that don’t jeopardize their own ownership rights, than it is to go in search of litigation.”
Lou Wiley, executive editor of Frontline, argued that producers must retain control over some kinds of content for sound journalistic reasons. “‘Open content’ is the perfect case for caution,” he said, according to his prepared remarks. “It sounds like something one should be for, not against, but just because it has an appealing moniker I urge you not to rush into a headlong embrace. To apply open content to all Frontline content would cause us big trouble.”
Wiley rolled clips from three films in which sources discuss very personal matters or put themselves at risk—“The Taking of Logan Marr,” about a girl who was murdered while in foster care; “A Dangerous Business,” in which a whistleblower talks about unsafe practices in a Texas iron foundry; and “The Insurgency,” in which a Iraqi family describes what happened when insurgents took over their town.
The investigative journalists who produced these films never would have been able to earn the trust of these sources if the material would then become fair game for mash-ups by anyone on Earth. “My belief is that if our producers tried to explain ‘open content’ to interviewees in controversial and sensitive situations, many would say `no,’ not only to that use of their material, but to the whole interview,” Wiley said. “In the end, there could be less powerful content, or no content at all.”
Open-media producers on the panel agreed with Wiley’s point, according to participants, and the exchange was something of a breakthrough.
“We have to look at what level of content sharing is appropriate,” said Vecchione, describing one of the conclusions drawn from the discussion. “What is appropriate for a Nature program is not appropriate for Frontline, and we don’t need to think in a straitjacket about everything being the same.”
A BBC pilot project released 230 pieces of digitized wildlife footage last week that U.K. residents can mash up and share as they please. In January the Beeb let go of numerous historic news film sequences, and it unleashed a library of audio clips last summer.
“Some people fall off their chairs when they hear what we’re giving away,” said Paul Gerhardt, joint director of the BBC Creative Archive Licence Group. He spoke at the Public Broadcasting New Media Conference last month in Seattle.
The clips are released under the BBC’s Creative Archive license, a variation on the U.S.-based Creative Commons licenses—under which media creators can offer their works voluntarily for certain noncommercial uses without fussing with copyrights.
U.K. residents can go online, download segments, modify and create new versions and distribute copies—though not commercially. The website, creativearchive.bbc.co.uk, invites Britons to: “Find it. Rip it. Mix it. Share it. Come and get it.”
Gerhardt said the project is a new way for the BBC to honor a law requiring public access to programming paid for by a tax on TV sets. In the past, getting access required visiting a special library. Other factors favor the move toward online access to programming, he said: The BBC is seeking renewal of its charter, the government is touting the objective of a Digital Britain, and growing numbers of people want material for their homemade digital creations.
Susan Kantrowitz, general counsel of Boston’s WGBH, said in Seattle that she’s interested in rights deeds such as Creative Commons that simplify the handling of rights.
“As a public service organization, maybe we owe it to ourselves to look at what [the BBC is] doing,” Kantrowitz told Current. Using the innovative licenses isn’t cost-free for the BBC, she noted in an interview. Like U.S. pubcasters, the BBC must pay fees to rights-holders such as composers, archives and unions. “Perhaps we could carve out payments we could afford,” she said. “What I found most fascinating was they invited stakeholders to be part of this . . . to be invested in reaching the right solution.
posted Oct. 24, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee