18 February 2010

Creative Commons to Help Community Radio

Intellectual property

Where does the broadcast media content end up after it has been on-air? It’s a valid question. If the content is good enough, maybe it’ll end up in Youtube or elsewhere online – generally as a copyright infringement – and occasionally it can be rebroadcasted. Most of the time however, it’ll probably just die a quiet death and become forgotten in some archive somewhere.

Its owner doesn’t do much, because its owner didn’t probably produce it, and the producer ceased to own it – its copyrights – as soon as he/she signed the contract to get it on-air. That’s just life; a standard practice.

Copyright law is a peculiar thing. It’s that for many reasons, but one of them is that it’s the type of regulation that is supposedly based on the ideals that the contracts that get written and signed usually get around without much questioning. That means that a copyright is supposed to be an incentive for creativity, but it is probably owned by someone who didn’t really create the text; a record company, publisher or broadcaster.

I am mainly interested in radio broadcasting here in South Africa. I have previously covered some similar ideas, but I thought I should fit them here on the blog as well.


I have been one of those people – a producer digging into content, doing the foot work and pondering over an angle, then signed away my rights to SABC, because one has got to eat, heard the content once in radio and then that’s it. The Public Broadcaster who owns the copyrights keeps on owning the content and in all likelihood none of us will ever hear it again. Of course I’ve got the original material, but I don’t have the right to even put it on this blog legally. Not to even mention to give it to non-profit community radios should they want to broadcast it for free.

That’s what should be improved and Creative Commons licensing could do it. And here’s how.

Creative Commons licensing is a different way to see copyrights. It’s a copyright, only a bit more flexible. It allows the content to be used on conditions that can be determined, or at least selected from the options by the owner. It’s hardly revolutionary stuff; more revisionist, but it certainly is an improvement to the legislation that almost wherever in the world you are, gets to be decided by the US lawmakers while being advised by the lobbies of the entertainment and media corporations.

The contract the Public Broadcaster offers has a standard clause that basically snatches the rights from the producer. Why that is, is not immediately clear to me. I understand that they pay for it (although as far as radio content goes very modestly), but is there an intention to re-use the material? I don’t know. I haven’t asked them and they would be the only people to say is the clause there for a reason, is it there because it might as well, or has it been forgotten there because no one has ever asked why it is there. But most importantly; does it have to be there?

What the clause could say, for instance, is that the Public Broadcaster gets onetime only rights, after which the content would be automatically, or at least optionally licensed with one of the Creative Commons licences. That would mean that instead of no one ever hearing it again, it could get a new life on community sector or even in the blogosphere potentially strenghtening the civil society and public discourse.

This way the non-profit media sector would benefit by getting, with time, a bank of locally produced audio content, to which it could add by doing the same; licensing with Creative Commons and availing the content from their own stations for others to use. For the producers it would not mean a direct additional income, but if you have been paid once, isn’t it better that people who didn’t catch your feature, documentary or what was it you did, had another chance? A bigger audience could mean that someone who does want to pay you, heard you and found you. It doesn’t necessarily mean that, but a CD stacked in the proverbial basement of SABC on its own definitely won’t.

Another useful addition that would probably go against the initial instinct of a few, would be to use some TV content as audio only versions in the non-profit media sector. I was watching my favourite current affairs documentary TV series, Cutting Edge, and closed my eyes; this stuff doesn’t really need images. Or at least, it’d work without them as well.

Using the modified audio track for the purposes of community media, would be great in my books. Especially since, as far as I know, the TV producers get an actual budget so of course it will (at least theoretically) show in their content as well, and for them either, this wouldn’t mean any loss of income, but a larger audience.

Part of the whole concept of Creative Commons is remixing. That means that other people, like other community radio producers, could take bits and pieces from features and use them in their own ones. This is an optional aspect of the licences and it automatically requires the new producer to keep on similarly allowing the next people to remix their content. To me it strikes like a great possibility to add the community specific twist to various stories.

So, should someone be able to lobby the change in contracts and attitudes that would be it?

Yes, that would be a good start for it. It would create a fertile ground where this kind of system could be tried out. Of course it needs more as well. Practicalities. It would need some, I’d say a person, but for the sake of not sounding naively unrealistic let’s say people who could set up a system and an infrastructure. That means some money is needed, but on the larger scale, I doubt it’d be impossible. Much of the content could be stored online and knowing the South African internet connection in the lightest broadcastable mp3 quality. Additionally, for the stations that couldn’t access Internet, CD:s could be sent on mail. All in all, not a very heavy operation.

Would it work? It depends, is the answer to that. Would the change in the contract be possible? Would the sector embrace this? Would there be money and will to keep it up because without sustainability it would be just a massive waste of efforts? I can’t answer these questions, but taking this back to the community level – to the actual level of the real people who, even only potentially, listen to community radio – at least there would be more current pre-packaged relevant quality local material. Right now I keep on hearing my wife’s interviews on-air on our local community station, and she hasn’t been working for it in a good few years, and that’s the locally produced content. Of course we also have the documentaries done by some European journalist who came here for two weeks and now is telling how it felt. Somehow I just don’t feel that it’s the best that can be. It’s understood that stations can lack money and other resources, there can be skill shortages and many obstacles, and no station should be solely leaning on this kind of material, but what it could do, is help to make the gap between what community radio is in theory and in practice a little narrower.

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