BOB GARFIELD: At any given time, the BBC's website is the most visited news site in the world. Fed by content from BBC broadcasts funded by license fees paid by British citizens when they buy TVs, the site is the prime access point for anyone who can't tune in. So, it was quite a surprise when the BBC announced last month that it would relinquish some control of its on-line content, and by extension, its brand, in order to capture some of the kinetic energy of internet invasion. Backstage.bbc.co.uk is the gateway to BBC on line's raw material, now available for almost any legal and non-commercial use. The only requirement is that potential users explain what their intentions are. Tom Loosemore is the co-creator of Backstage BBC, and he joins us from London. Tom, welcome to the show.
TOM LOOSEMORE: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Did this spring fully-formed from your imagination or was it a reaction to something else?
TOM LOOSEMORE: Frankly, it was a combination of two things we had noticed. One was that a particular group amongst our audience of real amateur innovators were, regardless of whether we'd given them permission or not, finding new ways to re-use BBC content, and had frankly come up with some very interesting ideas. And secondly, we'd seen from the States, in fact, the likes of Google and Yahoo and Amazon had really gone forth and developed a relationship with the same community via their developer networks and had had a great deal of success with that.
BOB GARFIELD: Give me some examples, please, of the kind of material that was showing up on the web that was using as its basis BBC material.
TOM LOOSEMORE: There was a very good example of a guy who had taken a copy, a live copy of our news site, for example, and had within the body of the actual story, where there was a phrase, say Kofi Annan or the United Nations, he had automatically turned that phrase into a link that went to the definition within the Wikipedia Encyclopedia. Wikipedia is a, is a well-known on-line encyclopedia. So if you were reading a story, and it mentioned something you knew nothing about, you could then go and get the background and, and get up to speed, and therefore understand the story better. It was a great idea, completely against our terms and conditions previously.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, if you were operating in the United States, the logical next step would be to unleash a phalanx of lawyers on the people at Wikipedia or at Wiki Proxy, this website, and the litigation would flow. But that's not the path you took. Why?
TOM LOOSEMORE: We are, remember, funded very differently from commercial companies. We are single-mindedly focused on delivering public value to everyone in the UK, rather than shareholder value to our shareholders, and therefore, I would - I think it does make it easier for us to let go. Having said that, I think you can see from the likes of Google and Yahoo, which are not charities, that they see great benefits from following a similarly open approach. For example, Google allows access to the insides, almost, of its search engine to people who want to innovate in a non-commercial way, because they want to see where the innovation is going, they what to encourage it, they want to keep close to that community. It's a vital community to them. And so I think, you know, yes, it's easier for BBC to do it. And while we definitely had concerns, we got the guy in. We wanted to understand why he'd done what he'd done. And I think we were able to have a constructive dialogue rather than the dialogue of the deaf.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about your internal dialogues at the BBC before you decided to surrender at least some control of your content to outsiders who have no responsibility to you or, strictly speaking, to your audience.
TOM LOOSEMORE: Bear in mind, we, we really are only relinquishing a little control of where headlines and links to our own stories appear on the web. And it was a constructive dialogue about the balance of risk and reward. I mean the BBC is, again, because of the way we're funded, we have to make sure everybody, everybody in the UK can get value from the money they pay. It's almost irrelevant how people come to find us. And this was seen as a good step to get more people to come and consume our content.
BOB GARFIELD: What has been the immediate benefits of both the unauthorized linking to BBC material and BBC Backstage itself?
TOM LOOSEMORE: Backstage itself has astonished me in the two weeks it's been live at the quality and, frankly, the volume of ideas that have sprung forth. I mean we were the most linked-to website in the blogosphere for much of last week. A, a community of sort of 600 or so developers has emerged out of nowhere, and are throwing ideas and products, indeed, that they've made, at each other. For example, they're mixing our content with maps, they're turning out text content into audio content automatically. There's a whole range of ideas that, if we had been lucky in the BBC, we may have come up with ourselves.
BOB GARFIELD: But what's the down side? For example, if I decide, at my porn site, and it's a good one, to start using BBC material in some salacious manner, what are you prepared to do about that?
TOM LOOSEMORE: We don't just give our stuff away willy nilly. I mean we do ask people to accept terms and conditions written by lawyers, and in amongst that is a condition that you don't associate BBC content with materials that will denigrate our brand. And so if we did see content appearing on a porn site, we'd, we'd ask you to remove it for having broken our terms and conditions.
BOB GARFIELD: So what's the single coolest thing you've seen so far that surprised and delighted you?
TOM LOOSEMORE: I think the single coolest thing was some guy who had taken all of our news headlines, the live news headlines, and automatically turned them from text into audio, using a text to speak conversion. I mean he's let people podcast BBC news headlines onto their ipods or onto their MP3 players. Now, it's spoken in a voice that sounds like a robot, but for me, I would never imagine it in a thousand years, that someone could or would do that.
BOB GARFIELD: That's been said of BBC presenters since time immemorial, actually, that they're a bit robotic. Is this some sort of joke that, that's afoot here?
TOM LOOSEMORE: [LAUGHS] I can assure you, our presenters are working very hard to speak in a way that doesn't alienate them. I don't know. [LAUGHS] I think if we converted them into robots, people would notice pretty quickly nowadays.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Tom thanks very much.
TOM LOOSEMORE: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom Loosemore is the co-creator of backstage.bbc.co.uk.