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Not playing fair undermines Open Media

In light of Google’s recent image syndication on Google News, I wanted to clear up a few misinterpretations about the BBC’s position with respect to syndicating news agency photographs (or perhaps more accurately not syndicating news agency photographs).

Here’s what I wrote to the mailing list (archives):

There have been a number of posts recently about using photos that appear on the BBC News website, including the one below.

I can completely understand why bringing images from news stories into your prototypes is a compelling idea. Unfortunately it’s not something the BBC is able to make available on backstage nor can it condone screen scraping of images from the news site.

However rather than being all stern and simply telling you “Hey, don’t do that”, I’d like to explain to you the reasoning behind all of this. My hope is that, armed with this information, you guys will choose not to use images because you can empathise with our position rather than because ‘we told you not to’!

The first point to make is that in almost all cases the BBC does not own the photos we make available on the BBC News site. I think it’s fair to say that in a lot of cases many people think we do own the photos, and therefore off the back of backstage put 2 and 2 together and assume that the pictures are fair game and part of “Open BBC”. Unfortunately that’s simply not the case.

Many would agree that it would simply not be a sensible use of licence payers money to have hundreds of photographers working for us roving the country, and indeed the world, ready to take photographs.

So like practically all other news providers we licence the use photos from the photographic agencies for use on the website. These providers include AP, Reuters – although there are many others we use too. They have a constant churn of photos coming in from their photographers and “paparazzi”. If you want to see what such a feed looks like, check out the live Yahoo! news picture galleries: which is fairly representative of what’s current on the “picture wires”.

BBC licences the right to reproduce these pictures on the BBC website – and only the BBC website. It does not have the right to redistribute them to third parties, such as including them in RSS feeds. This is why we are unable to make the photos available to you on backstage at this time.

Negotiating redistribution rights would no doubt be very expensive and and it’s questionable whether the agencies would even agree to it. Their business model is that they distribute the photos to news providers and other interested parties. Having redistribution rights ourselves would turn that model on it’s head.

As you will know, I’m a big champion for “open media” both in the BBC and outside the BBC. But one of the responsibilities of being involved with such a concept is to respect copyright when copyright exists. And by being involved in backstage, you should all also feel valued members and pioneers of the open media community.

You may not agree with a given licence restriction, or feel that it is stifling your creativity, but it’s simply not right to ignore the licences asset owners place upon their work – regardless of the type of content and the type of licence being used.

If you want to convince somebody that they should think differently, it is far more powerful to demonstrate the value they are missing by using existing Open/Creative Commons/similar work rather than ripping off their content and hoping they will like it. The chances are they won’t, and invariably may undermine both your work and in their eyes the open media concept in general.

Closer to home, serious licence infringements in your prototypes could undermine the work we are trying to do at the BBC with, and our other Open BBC projects.

In addition to being an advocate for the BBC externally to you guys, internally I’m an advocate for the work you are all doing and your aspirations generally. I use the above method to show content stakeholders around the BBC real examples of where you are adding new value to BBC content by remixing other providers content into your prototypes – in an effort to demonstrate the benefits to the BBC in releasing our equivalent content on backstage. The more you build and demonstrate value, the more content feeds and apis I can get released to you. The same concept should work on a larger scale, when dealing with rights holders outside the BBC. But it all needs to happen in a positive and respectful way if it is going to work!

This is a very long process which we’re just at the beginning off, but as someone once said: even the longest journey begins with a single step.

I know this has been a long email, so thanks for reading.


We all need to play nicely and act responsibly if “Open Media” is ever going to gain – and maintain – real credibility within “Old Media” circles.

We can still push the boundaries; demonstrate where we don’t agree with certain licences on certain types of content. But it needs to be done properley; else we risk undermining our efforts.

Published in Thoughts and Rants