The Creative Archive is a joint venture between the BBC, Channel 4, the British Film Institute and the Open University, and it's a groundbreaking development.
For the first time, members of the public will be able to download sound recordings, video clips and entire TV programmes from the internet, edit and manipulate them on a computer, burn them on to CD-Roms, put them on to a school intranet or website and share them with countless others - legally.
The Creative Archive represents a fundamental shift in the attitude of content and rights holders. Until recently, the latter jealously guarded their content, wary of innovations like digital downloading. But then every technological development that has allowed consumers to record or copy content has been viewed with suspicion by the creative industries.
Publishers saw the photocopier depriving them of book sales, music companies thought tape recorders would kill off music. and the film industry even took Sony to court when it launched its first video recorder.
All these fears proved unfounded, but it's not surprising that when file sharing and downloading became widespread on the internet, music companies used both the law and technology to stop it. Their reaction was understandable, because millions of music files were being illegally downloaded. But the success of Apple's iTunes online music store has shown that people will pay to download music.
The spread of broadband means downloading is here to stay. This creates a dilemma for digital content holders. Do they fight it or embrace it? Fortunately for schools, the parties in the Creative Archive alliance have taken the latter view. "The BBC has been providing educational resources outside of broadcasting, but the one thing it has found hard to provide is the programmes themselves," explains the BBC's Paul Gerhardt, the Creative Archive's director. "Text is quotable and portable. We are at the beginning of the stage where we can offer this flexibility with moving image and audio."
When the Creative Archive is up and running, users will be able to download video content in the form of a digital video file that offers similar picture quality to a VHS recording. The digital file will not include anti-copy technology or digital rights management technology (which controls how the end-user can use the content), so it can be edited, tweaked, put into a multimedia presentation and more. "The educational potential is huge," says Paul. "We have a younger generation who are computer literate and will not be afraid to use their skills for manipulating media."
The draft Creative Archive licence was published last April. Among the terms and conditions are: that any downloaded material is not used for commercial purposes; that due credit is given to the original source; that any resulting resources are shared in the same way; and that the downloaded material is not mis-used (for example, as part of a political campaign). At present, these rights are restricted to the UK, although there are plans to extend them to cover other areas. Paul hopes schools will share any resources they produce with others.
He adds that the Creative Archive complements the planned BBC Digital Curriculum, which will offer a range of online educational resources for schools. "You have to bear in mind that the BBC won't be providing a context for Creative Archive content," he says. "For example, there won't be a learning framework around it, such as teacher's notes." Nor does the Creative Archive conflict with the Educational Recording Agency scheme, which permits educational establishments to record TV and radio programmes.
A pilot Creative Archive begins this summer, with each of the four organisations offering various forms of content. The BBC plans to put around 100 hours of TV and radio material online, with most of it taken from specialist factual programmes like natural history and science. The pilot will last around 18 months and will be used for identifying any issues and amending the Creative Archive licence if necessary. Paul Gerhardt says, "Schools should visit the Creative Archive website to get the latest news and links for downloadable content."
Channel 4 has taken a slightly different approach. It is already involved in two projects running under the Creative Commons licensing scheme, the inspiration for the Creative Archive licence.
The Webit project was a competition under the Ideas Factory initiative, which was aimed at young creative people. Entrants were given a selection of sound and video resources to create a website. Pix 'n' Mix is aimed at video jockeys, who mix music and videos in clubs, and also provides them with various media resources. A planned Four Docs project will provide aspiring documentary makers with stock footage. "Our focus is on what people can create out of the resources rather than simply unlocking a library of old stuff," says Adam Gee, commissioning editor, interactive, at Channel 4 Education. "We need to push at the boundaries with this material and stay in touch with those who want to use it."
The Creative Archive group is talking to other broadcasters and institutions, like museums and galleries, that hold a wealth of resources.
Let's hope that more organisations come on board. Those behind the Creative Archive should be applauded for their vision, imagination and boldness. If it's a success, countless teachers and students could reap great benefits.