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BBC Archive Project: Cuba and the Cold War

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Emma Papworth | 13:54 UK time, Monday, 22 December 2008

Records of most major historical events from the last century can be found in the BBC archives, even those that predate the BBC itself. The event will have been recorded in one form or another among the some million hours of film, video and audio, and millions of documents and photographs.

So when the opportunity arose to create a collection on one of these events, that is, the Cuban revolution and missile crisis, it was expected that there would be a wealth of archive on the subject, and this is true; there is. But when it comes to international events, we are confounded by copyright issues which place heavy limitations on what can be released.


As well as being time consuming to clear, copyright material often has a significant price tag too. Although the BBC holds archive of John F. Kennedy's 1962 speech on the Cuban missile crisis, which version is selected can make such a difference. Even in the 1960s many recordings of foreign events were feeds from agencies, over which BBC commentary was added. Some of the feeds originate from archives which are now owned by commercial companies, while others are in the public domain. In the case of the Kennedy speech, two minutes of footage acquired from a commercial source would have cost a significant sum while the shorter version, shot at a different angle from inside the President's office, was in the public domain and available to us for free. The shorter version does not include Kennedy's statement that Soviet missiles based on Cuba could strike most of the eastern United States and beyond within minutes, but it's a fascinating piece of footage nonetheless.

It doesn't stop there. Every photograph, presenter, voice over - almost every component of a programme - may have a cost. One excellent programme on the many attempts by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro, featured voices of actors who had been required to dub over interviews. Interviewees included former CIA agents, who contemplated Bond-esque assassination methods such as exploding cigars, and Castro's lover who almost poisoned him. However, some online broadcasting rights deals for this type of material are not yet in place. Consequently, we could not include this programme. Maybe in the future it can be added.

The rights to photographs that appear within a BBC programme also have to be cleared which again usually involves a cost. A 1971 BBC documentary, 'In Search of the Real Che Guevara' featured some 50 photographs and footage from external sources which also required payment. This documentary is an excellent account of Che's journey to becoming one of the world's most legendary revolutionaries, but due to the high costs we could not include it.

Furthermore this programme and some others considered for the 'Cuba and the Cold War' collection were co-produced or wholly produced by independent broadcasting companies. The BBC may not own the rights to these therefore, which prevents us reshowing them. It's a situation that will become more common in the future as the BBC increasingly commissions independent companies to make BBC programmes, or the BBC acquires complete programmes or series already made, where the BBC is often only granted a limited number of transmissions and/or a short licence period for online use.

To an extent, the rights costs also dictate the use of photographs to illustrate the programme information on the website. Wherever possible we try to use photographs from our own photographic archives, a rich source of the BBC's heritage that dates back to the 1920s. However, occasionally the archives don't have anything suitable; as was the case with early photos of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. In such incidences, we have to approach external photo agencies. Each photograph acquired from an external photo agency is selected to reflect the value of the BBC programme whilst keeping within our budget. Agency photos are also credited so as to distinguish them from the BBC's own photos.

All of these issues make it difficult to cover international news stories but not impossible.
With persistence and careful selection it's possible to retrieve and share these gems from the BBC's rich archive.

Emma Papworth is Assistant Content Producer.


  • Comment number 1.


    It frustrates me when I read ill-informed comments on blogs or the like demanding that the BBC should put all content from all time online forever and for free.

    While it is a wonderful idea, it doesn't begin to consider with the practical realities this blog highlights.

    But I applaud the work to open up your content to the world and look forward to seeing even more in the future.

    My one criticism is that it does seem rather hidden away at the moment, and only seems to surface through blog posts like this, not through the website itself.

  • Comment number 2.

    Wonderful post. Thank you!

    I struggle to understand though, how rights-holders are being best served by having their content locked up (and not earning any royalty) in such a tortuous clearing process.

    Surely the collection societies should allow the BBC to clear en-masse and get a blanket fee to re-allocate to rights-holders?

    This luxury will not be available to them for long as time is their enemy on all fronts:
    - Firstly, the physical content is degrading and the worse it gets the greater the recovery cost.
    - Secondly, the digitizing of archive content can be seen to be a valid business investment if it can be measured in a ROI way – not a nice metric to have to apply to the culture of the state, but judging by the lack of investment up to now sticking with the status quo isn’t an option – and with the finances of companies being squeezed in this current economic environment, being able to pay your way counts!
    - Thirdly, any digital content from the last 10-15 years (and more and more of the analogue stuff being subsequently digitized) is being “unofficially” archived and makes it less of a cornered market for anyone wishing to market archive material and therefore making it less lucrative for any investment.

    So free (as in speech) the content and we’ll all have a beer (for free?) with the BBC :-)

  • Comment number 3.

    Great article. I had no idea that releasing archive material was such a complex process. Nor did I realise that BBC archivists were so cute!

  • Comment number 4.

    "Surely the collection societies should allow the BBC to clear en-masse and get a blanket fee to re-allocate to rights-holders?"

    What collection societies? There aren't any for several media types.

    Thankyou Emma. Could you please print a copy of this out, roll it up and use it to beat some reality in to Steve Bowbrick?

  • Comment number 5.

    I struggle to understand though, how rights-holders are being best served by having their content locked up (and not earning any royalty) in such a tortuous clearing process.

    Surely the collection societies should allow the BBC to clear en-masse and get a blanket fee to re-allocate to rights-holders?


    The rights holders are no better served by allowing free use of their material than by having it locked up so unless they get payment there is no incentive at all to allow access.

    There are no collection societies.

  • Comment number 6.

  • Comment number 7.

    Fascinating post, Emma. Thanks for going into such useful detail about the process. Of course, your post has triggered just the kind of debate we've come to expect when people get together to discuss archive content. This is a vitally important area.

    The trouble with this discussion is that it too easily degrades into a zero-sum argument: irresponsible content utopians indifferent to the legitimate interests of artists vs stick-in-the-mud content conservatives who want to freeze innovation to keep Cliff Richard in Cristal Champagne (or whatever floats his boat).

    The fact is that technological change produces change in laws and in underlying norms – sometimes very quickly and with surprising force. We have a handful of critically important technological breakthroughs to thank for the current copyright framework, for instance (from printing to sound recording via the steam ship and the railway networks). It should not be beyond the wit of the polity to invent a new copyright settlement that preserves reasonable rewards for creators while beginning to expose the huge public value currently locked up in archives and content stores all over the place.

    I’d like to think that I don’t belong to either extreme in this argument (I certainly don’t advocate some kind of unilateral liberation of content without the cooperation of creators) but I’m certainly in favour of greater access to the archives and I think that creators and their advocates are often bloody-minded and frankly obstructive when asked to consider more liberal arrangements.

    One way of moving the argument along might be to start sending bills to the authors and artists whose work is represented in the BBC’s archive to cover the cost of storage and preservation currently borne by the licence fee-payer. Of course, they would be free to return thir bills unpaid but then the BBC might choose to start deleting their work and that might provide the kind of incentive to act that @hackerjack rightly points out is currently absent.

    But that, of course, would be nasty and utterly counter-productive. Any other ideas?

  • Comment number 8.

    Shorten copyright to twenty years.
    Why do you think patents last only for such a short time? To further progress!
    After a decent time to recover the costs of inventing inventions should better the lives of everyone.
    The same should apply not only to our technical heritage but to our cultural heritage. Standing on the shoulders of giants to achieve new heights!

  • Comment number 9.

    Fab stuff. Keep up the good work!

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