Monday 25 January 2016

The Film Institutions in 2016 (3) - Preservation of the audio visual heritage - The ABC's dilemma

Since the shakeup of the National Film & Sound Archive that began in the early months of 2014 with the abrupt sacking of 28 staff, there has been an ebb and flow of interest in the issues around preserving our film heritage AND making it accessible to current and future generations. The plain fact is that across the Board of the various institutions charged with this task simply not enough funding has been supplied by the Federal Government for the purpose. The institutions suffering as a result are, in these days when Governments, and especially the Federal Government, are very intimidatory, most reluctant to rock the boat. There have been no stirring speeches about the catastrophe ahead, no leadership emerging and most importantly no politician anywhere willing to make this a cause. Nowadays causes are dangerous. 

As a result those charged with the task of preservation and increased access try and make do. With an election looming, it may be time for far more aggro to be applied. And, somewhat suprisingly, there may be a start point right here.

The Productivity Commission is examining Australia's intellectual property system. So far 128 submissions have been received.  

The ABC's submission may have lain unregarded however but for a journo working for online newsletter Crikey picking up on its content yesterday 25 January. Here's the opening couple of paras.

The ABC might not be able to preserve historically significant programs like episodes of Four Corners, Catalyst, Quantum and Compass, documentaries series like Liberals and Labor in Power, and state-based news programs, because copyright laws make it difficult to digitise such content without clearance from multiple copyright holders.

This comes from the ABC's response to the Australian Productivity Commissions Intellectual Property Arrangements public inquiry. Also at risk are some recordings of music and programs like Countdown, cricket broadcasts, and historical children's programming, such as Play Schooland Bananas in Pyjamas. 

The Copyright Act allows the ABC to make three copies of works for the purpose of preserving them against loss. But the ABC considers this "inadequate", "particularly for the purposes of generating digital copies for inclusion in the archive".

The ABC maintains the most significant archive of historical broadcast-quality raw material in Australia, its submission states. Commercial broadcasters, which used to maintain comparable libraries, increasingly dump unused tape within 30 days. 

Now I realise that copyright difficulties are not the same as the simple problem of finding enough cash to do the digitization job but it caused me to have a look at the paras referred to in the ABC submission. The first discovery however was that the ABC had simply recycled a submission it made to another enquiry back in 2012. Apparently nothing has changed.

But there is one crucial section about digitising the collection.

Unlocking the ABC archive
From an evidential point of view, the ABC refers the Commission to the two case studies relating to broadcasters unlocking archives for public access... These are the BBC experience and the NHK experience. The BBC also referred to this trial in its submission to the Hargreaves Review.
To negotiate 1,000 hours of archive programming (from an archive with over 1 million hours) available online for streaming it took the BBC around 6,500 person hours to check 1,000 hours of programming for rights implications and the archive trial team subsequently had to obtain permission for use from about 300 individual or collective rights holders. The BBC said: The trial data suggests [sic] that administrative costs of clearing the entire archive would be prohibitively expensive. We estimated that it would take 800 staff around three years to clear the entire BBC archive at a total cost of £72 million (equivalent to about 2% of the BBC’s annual licence fee income).

The BBC also spoke about the difficulty in clearing Doctor Who for digital use; a similar experience shared by the ABC

In 2008, NHK selected 1000 hours from its television archive. NHK estimated it would take a team of 20 people working full-time for eight months to clear this material.

While the ABC has not formally assessed the likely costs and effort required to clear the underlying rights in significant portions of its archive for digital use, these figures are broadly consistent with the Corporation’s experience. The costs of such clearances include both administrative costs and the actual licensing costs, which vary considerably across genres and need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. As a result, the ABC’s digitisation of its archive has been almost entirely confined to: (a) digitisation for preservation purposes, which does not necessarily require the clearance of underlying rights; (b) digitisation of content, such as news footage, that is ABC-owned and thus requires minimal clearance; and (c) digitisation for use in ABC Commercial products that are able to recoup the rights clearance costs through sales revenue.

In terms of testimony, Monique Potts said:
Within Innovation we have been exploring new publishing models where we can add value to existing broadcast content for niche audiences such as the education platform ABC Splash, where we are adding educational and curriculum information to a library of short form media content. The process of clearing rights for this content to be used online is a very manual and time consuming process and means the amount of content we can publish is much more limited. Any way of simplifying the number or range of rights holders and payments required to clear rights for this content would help to be able to reuse broadcast content efficiently across a range of digital platforms. The process of clearing archival material to make available online is very time consuming and difficult and means only a very small proportion of the available ABC archive can be made available for Australian audiences.

Robert Hutchinson said:
We were able to release Wild Side, Janus and Phoenix on DVD, but clearances got in the way of the digital release. It got way too hard, and one of the writers had disappeared.

So, will the Productivity Commission toss a bombshell into the politics of 2016 by picking up on the ABC’s needs and recommending that the copyright law be changed AND that more money be spent?  By extension the ABC’s needs are, broadly, those of all the film preserving bodies. However, given its difficult relationship with Malcolm Turnbull and the cronies/heavies and climate change deniers who sit behind him and rail away daily at what the ABC gets up to it’s hard to see the ABC wanting to pick a fight on this issue. 

Up to others.

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