Just imagine," said Greg Dyke in his Richard Dunn Memorial Lecture to the 2003 Edinburgh Television Festival. "Your child comes home from school with homework to make a presentation to the class... He or she goes to the nearest broadband connection and logs onto the BBC library. They search for real moving pictures that would turn their project into an exciting multi-media presentation. They download them and, hey presto, they are able to use the BBC material in their presentation for free."
Anyone with broadband access, Dyke announced, would be able to use what he called a "treasure trove", the world's largest collection of 1.5 million television programmes and 750,000 radio shows. It would all be available free of charge as long as the use to which it was put was not commercial. The potential value to universities, colleges and amateur film-makers looked enormous.
Dyke called the project "a dream we will soon be able to turn into reality". Unfortunately, things aren't going to turn out the way he had hoped. Predictions that every television picture from 1936 onwards and the radio archive back to 1922 would be put online have been dashed. Paul Gerhardt, co-director of the BBC Creative Archive project, says: "Part of our work here is to manage expectations. The way people read Greg's speech suggested that the whole of the BBC's archive was going to be available from day one and at some point in the near future. That isn't what we are actually going to do."
The BBC's archive contains gems including The Forsyte Saga, 1960s editions of Dr Who and Quatermass, numerous examples of The Wednesday Play, and performances by bands including the Rolling Stones and the Smiths. There are recordings of John Betjeman and Dylan Thomas reading their own work, and films of the funeral of Winston Churchill and the Queen's wedding. Radio news archives include British politicians from the days of the General Strike to Tony Blair. There is documentary footage from the Windscale fire to the arrest of Saddam Hussein, and entire series of shows including Omnibus and Arena.
But little of this is available for early release; the reality will be an ostensibly unambitious pilot project. Paul Gerhardt says: "We would like to release the first material by the end of this calendar year."
One archivist familiar with the BBC's material says: "The copyright problems are enormous, and digitising old film and audio tape is expensive. At first the bulk of the material will consist of wildlife archives because that stuff has already been digitised and animals don't get copyright. For children who want pictures of lions and tigers it will be useful. But for anyone hoping to see old drama or documentaries it is going to be a long wait."
Gerhardt concedes: "The very first release will almost certainly be natural history only. However, over the course of the pilot we will release a range of material of which nature programmes will only be part. Until I started looking I did not realise that the archives contain a number of crown jewels that we have sole rights to. We can issue them under our own licence without having to get the agreement of a third party."
Another BBC insider says, "We will be able to put online things like Anthony Eden during the Suez Crisis and early footage of the Queen trooping the colour [but] artistic work is of a different nature." The initial releases will not even take the form of entire programmes, but will be short clips.
Copyright is the big problem. "The significant rights issue is where there are third-party suppliers involved, whether as talent within the programmes or because an independent company supplied the programme. In both cases we are in the process of sitting down with representative bodies and persuading them to take part in the pilot and to keep a completely open mind about what the impact of that pilot might be," says Gerhardt.
It is a huge risk. If the pilot leads to a noticeable increase in piracy then organisations representing actors, musicians and presenters are unlikely to approve expanded access. The BBC has devised a new licence to protect its interests. It is based on the creative commons licence devised by a Stanford University law professor, Lawrence Lessig, but Gerhardt explains: "It is our own licence, our own words. The pilot launch will be the first access to new material and the first public availability of this new licence as well."
Senior executives believe the BBC has a duty to pioneer ways in which the internet can be used to grant legal access to film and sound recordings. Gerhardt says: "The internet is already the platform for an enormous increase in the traffic of audio-visual material and what the BBC must do is get ahead of the game by making a deal to share that material rather than pushing users into an illegal situation."
Greg Dyke underestimated the barriers to free access, but the people who are struggling to turn his dream into reality have equally ambitious ideas. "We would be exceedingly pleased if other organisations joined with us and released content of their own under the same licence arrangements. If that happened we would be delighted to drop the BBC branding from this project and work to create a national archive," says Gerhardt.
The BBC is actively pursuing this idea in talks with Channel 4, the British Film Institute and the British Library. Gerhardt says: "What we have put on the table is that the BBC will share all of its assets in the development of this proposition. We will share our technology and the search engine we develop. We will share any marketing we put behind it. We have tried to put ourselves in the position of the user, whether it's an academic or just someone at home. When they type in a keyword to a search engine they want to know that they are accessing all of the nation's collections, not just one."
Academics will be delighted if it happens. But they are sceptical about the BBC's motives. Dr Joran Ten Brink of Westminster University says: "People have been knocking on their door for years asking for access to material. There is a lot that will be very useful for teaching film, history of art, politics and many other subjects. But I suspect they are only being nice to people now because of the discussions surrounding the new charter."
It is a fair point. Greg Dyke's Edinburgh speech was made just 24 hours after Tessa Jowell reminded the BBC that is has an existing obligation to share its footage. That is proving much harder than Dyke ever imagined, but it may yet lead to something exciting; the pilot will be critical.