Interview with BBC News Head On DRM, File Sharing and the Press

By Jon Newton 5/6/06

p2pnet is still in Britain for the We Media forum, which earlier reservations notwithstanding, is turning out to be a fascinating event.

Among mainstream media heavyweights at the forum was Richard Sambrook, director of the BBC Global News division, the man who runs the BBC's international news services on radio, television and new media.

We had a one-on-one with him when we raised the subjects of DRM and file sharing.

Jon Newton

Sambrook told us he's a former Napster user (the original, not the 'new' disinterred version) and that thanks to his online experiences, "I probably spend more on that kind of media now than I did before".

p2pnet: DRM is a hot topic, especially after the Sony BMG fiasco which I'm sure you're well aware of. What are your thoughts on DRM and sharing information, and so on?

Sambrook: I think DRM is inevitable because people have gotten used to the first wave of the internet and to a lot of content being available free because we were exploring the technology. Personally, I don't think that can last because there are enormous rights issues. Big organizations like the BBC, of course, don't own all of the rights to all of their content, so I think DRM is inevitable, and I think different organizations will take different views about it.

I think the other point is clearly that a lot of organizations are working out at the moment how they can develop revenue streams in the face of what is a very disruptive technology and business model and DRM offers them a means of doing that, although I think many people will be disappointed to see this, the nature of the internet being entirely free and open space. That openness will be limited and I think there will start to be some fenced in areas, and some rights protected areas, emerging to a greater extent than they are at the moment.

p2pnet: But by its very nature, anything you can see or hear can be copied by one analog or digital means or another. So how will they do that - fence it in?

Sambrook: That's a very good point, but clearly one of the big issues in the BBC is we're looking at a seven-day window. You may or you many not agree with that, but put it so your license runs out ---

p2pnet: DRM.

Sambrook: Yes. That's one model.

p2pnet: So after the seven days, will people be free to do whatever they want with the content they now have?

Sambrook: No. At the moment, one of the models the BBC is looking at is: after seven days, it [the license] expires and you can no longer play the content.

p2pnet: So it dies

Sambrook: So it dies. What we're basically saying is look, through your license fee you can get via broadband or whatever an additional seven days access to something as opposed to the one-off broadcast.

p2pnet: So you're renting it.

Sambrook: Yes. You're renting it, if you like, but it's included in your license fee payment. It then goes onto a commercial model and then comes back some time later and it can be archived after a time which is agreed by everyone. Now, people may have different views about that model and whether it's going to work or not ---

p2pnet: At that point it becomes free?

Sambrook: Yup.

p2pnet: How long before it becomes public domain, then?

Sambrook: We don't know yet.

p2pnet: Any ideas?

Sambrook: Personally, I'm not involved in that bit so I can't talk about it. But that's one model for the peculiar issues around the BBC and public funding, and so on. I think other people will be looking at micro payments for particular bits of content, and I think a number of different models will come forward.

We're already seeing in the download market you can have your subscription, you can have item payment, you can have all sorts of different levels coming through. Whether it will continue to be mixed economy or whether there will be some norms that emerge, I don't know. But I think paying for content is inevitably going to remerge through the on-demand technology.

p2pnet: I'm also sure you're familiar with the mp3 phenomenon with people being sued in the States.

Sambrook: Yes.

p2pnet: Now, as someone who's in control of news content for a large organization, how do you view the spin that's being put on this? To illustrate what I mean, in the States they're saying they've quote sued unquote around 19,000 people when in fact all they've done is to subpoena 19,000 people, but it's being reported as though there have been 19,000 prosecutions. So here we have PR versus news. What do you think about this?

Sambrook: Personally, I have a couple of thoughts about this. Firstly, I think we need to cut through the PR and be clear about what is happening and what isn't happening, and how many people are actually being sued versus how many people are being threatened by subpoena, or whatever else. We need to try and cut through the numbers and find out exactly what's happening.

My personal view, and it's not a BBC view, is I think it's pretty odd for any big company to start to sue its customers and I personally think that's rather limited in its effectiveness.

p2pnet: And p2p?

Sambrook: I absolutely understand that p2p technology fits the business models of music companies and the movies, and so on, but I don't think the answer is to sue the customer. I think you have to work out some way of rights management, or rights licensing, or whatever, and come up with a business model that works for the audience as well as it works for you.

I don't think trying to intimidate the audience into behaving the way you want them to behave is likely to be a very sensible way of going on.

p2pnet: You're a man who's in charge of how news is being reported. I've seen a number of BBC stories – it's frequently one of my sources when I'm writing stuff – in which this thing we've just been discussing – that people are being sued when in fact they're being subpoenaed, and the implication is they're guilty of something, of illegal file sharing. How do you see that?

Sambrook: I'll have to look at that. I'm not familiar with the individual stories you're referring to, but I certainly think we need to be very clear about what is happening and what isn't happening, and what the legal basis for whatever legal actions are being taken should be.

p2pnet: OK. Meanwhile, the people who are being subpoenaed are being labeled as criminals and thieves, and these words are actually in the press materials which are being routinely issued and used. But nothing has been stolen, no money has changed hands, no one has been deprived of something they used to own. But the materials are being used and in the process, the media in other words are supporting the ...

Sambrook: It's a bit like trying to prove a negative, isn't it. It's trying to say somebody has downloaded this music, or whatever, on a p2p basis rather than having gone out and paid for it, saying it's a crime ----

It's trying to prove a negative. You're trying to assert that the music companies and artists have lost money they would otherwise have had.

Again, speaking from personal experience, and it's not a BBC view, I think downloading actually increases my media use and I buy more CDs and more DVDs as a result of having access to them.

I'll also be frank. I started off using Napster in the early days and decided not to because I came to a personal view that it wasn't right and I should still feed the music economy by buying stuff. Other people come to different views. But I do think that the whole downloading phenomenon and the idea of having music on your computers and the rest of it, I probably spend more on that kind of media now than I did before.

p2pnet: In Canada, Bare Nakeladies, Avril Lavigne, and others equally well-known artists, have just formed a coalition in which they're saying to the RIAA – in the UK it's the BPI – saying it's stupid to be suing our fans. We should be wooing them.

Sambrook: It hasn't been widely reported as far as I know in any of the mainstream media. But I'm sure it will be.

p2pnet: But that's two weeks ago now. On the other hand, the instant the BPI or RIAA issue a press release that they have no sued more people, the day afterwards, it's in all the media. Where's the balance?

Sambrook: Fine, balance. But I think that clearly if the BPI, or whoever, act in some way, on whatever basis, something has occurred on a very topical issue which is of interest and which gets reported.

When Bare Nakeladies, and so on, say they're not going to do something, it's more difficult to say someone has decided not to do something as a newsworthy act than to say they have done it. Nevertheless, I do think to the extent that we report this issue, and it's a very live issue, absolutely, if people are taking the decision that they should take a different strategy in the face of these problems, it's absolutely reportable and I'm surprised it hasn't been, but I'm sure it will be.

p2pnet: Are we going to be seeing less, on the BBC at least, reporting by press release?

Sambrook: Personally, I would hope that we never simply regurgitate press releases. We always add some original journalism to it, and I will go on doing that, and this is a very live issue and I'm sure it will go on being reported extensively.


Jon Newton is the editor of and is a regular contributer to MP3 Newswire. Jon's site is devoted to the politics of digital music and his insights as well as those of his co-writers can be read there. We urge you to explore it.

Other MP3 stories:
Fans Who Share Music Aren't Thieves
Screw You, Pay Twice: Content Industry To Consumer




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