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TV & Radio

Jan 25, 2016

'A nightmare': ABC archives at risk as copyright concerns hamper digitisation

Copyright laws mean some of Australia's cultural history might disappear forever.

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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”.

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6 comments

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6 thoughts on “‘A nightmare’: ABC archives at risk as copyright concerns hamper digitisation

  1. Norman Hanscombe

    I’d expect Myriam that on such a worthy project as this, there’d be a united front across the media and significant public arena entities to cooperate fully on achieving the necessary support for whatever legislation was required.

  2. Nicholas

    Australia’s adoption of aspects of United States copyright law for the sake of a Free Trade Agreement of negligible benefit to Australia is a major obstacle to copyright law reform in this county. We need to dump the US-Australia FTA and write a copyright statue that promotes public purpose. Rent-seeking, not public purpose, is currently at the heart of our copyright law. That has to be changed.

  3. paddy

    Thank goodness for torrents.

  4. zut alors

    The ABC archives are just as significant as the National Library – history must be preserved.
    Philistine government bean-counters will proclaim it’s no longer viable to keep records of our images, our evolution.

    But, hey, let’s buy more fighter jets which will be redundant in the next decade.

  5. AR

    Of course it is purely about copyright and nothing at all to do with the growing predilection of the powerful for the ever gaping memory hole.

  6. Lee Tinson

    So, are we being asked to go along with the idea that private media are allowed to sue the ABC if it makes available archive material for which those companies hold a notional copyright but in which they didn’t have enough interest to even keep a copy themselves?

    Now THAT’s what I call rent-seeking. I expect we’re talking about places like Seven, are we? After their efforts at the tennis today I expect they’d call this “just business”.

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