An ABC film crew on the job in Hobart circa 1960 (Source: ABC Archive)

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 School and 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. The ABC’s submission states:

“Material not included in the news packaged to air on television is consequently deleted after a thirty day period. In most of the commercial broadcast sector resources are no longer provided for the collection and cataloguing of items and rich and unique historical and culturally significant material is lost.”

Copyright provisions also hamper what the ABC’s journalists and producers can currently do with the ABC’s archive. For example, currently, the ABC maintains low-resolution copies of the works it has managed to digitise in the libraries of its capital-city offices. These low-resolution audio or video segments are made primarily for its program makers, but the ABC wants to have a system where all staff (not just those based in capital cities) can access this archive from their computers. But even this is tricky under the current act:

“The Corporation is concerned, however, that the current provisions of the Copyright Act would prohibit such a distributed system. Not only would it require the creation of additional copies in repositories, but providing browsing access via program-makers’ computer terminals would potentially entail the communication of copies of works and the creation of additional copies in the random-access memory (RAM) of their computers that are not permitted by the Act.”

Giving the public access to this archival content is yet another hurdle. The submission notes:

“The ABC is currently working within the confines of the Act and the rights restrictions placed on archival content to find content which is suitable for release under open access licences. However, the complex nature of rights in archival content is a significant impediment to releasing old content.”

While the ABC hasn’t formally assessed what it would cost to clear the copyright claims on its archival material, it draws on the experience of the BBC, which made 1000 hours of historical programming available to the public. This took its staff 6500 man hours as staff negotiated with 300 different copyright holders. The experience led the organisation to deduce it would require “800 staff around three years to clear the entire BBC archive at a total cost of 72 million pounds”.

“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,” said Monique Potts, an executive from the ABC’s innovation division, in the ABC’s submission. The whole process of dealing with copyright laws, she added, was “a bit of a nightmare”.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.


Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey