The BBC Sells Out? 

1 August 2007

A recent blog entry on the web site, under the headline “BBC Corrupted by Microsoft” bemoans the latest development in copy protection.

What it is fundamentally about is that the BBC’s iPlayer, which is required to view the content that the BBC will be providing on-line, runs only under a Windows operating system. This means, of course, that the content will not be available to be users of other platforms, notably Macintosh and Un*x flavours such as Linux. The fact that you can run it on a modern Intel Macintosh if you buy a copy of Windows and run it on your Mac with BootCamp or Parallel Desktop is neither here nor there – I am certainly not buying Windows to occupy vast space on my machine simply to run a media player.

Why is this the case? Well, the Defective By Design campaign blog entry puts it rather sensationally, but the answer lies in Digital Rights Management (DRM). DRM systems basically limit what you can do with downloaded copyright content – for example, not copying it, watching it so many times, or whatever.

The BBC wants to time-limit access to the free material it makes available on-line so that after a week it goes away. Why does it want to do that? Well, the BBC makes use of a number of independent contractors, and they would rather like to be able to sell programme downloads after the BBC has made them available free of charge, to people who want to keep them. Whether there is actually a market for downloadable programming like that remains to be seen.

Looking at it another way, it’s a bit like the existing ‘Listen Again’ service, where you can go and stream a radio programme up to about a week after it went out. iPlayer will do the same for television programming from the BBC.

As many readers will be aware, the whole concept of DRM is under widesread criticism at the moment, with Steve Jobs of Apple calling for an end to it and EMI being the first of the majors to offer higher-quality non-DRM-limited music downloads at a premium via iTunes Plus. If the music industry has any sense, this is something they’ll look into seriously – it basically gives you the same flexibility to enjoy your music from downloads as you have traditionally enjoyed with discs and tapes.

But TV programmes are not like albums which you may well listen to over and over. It’s perhaps not likely you’ll watch them more than once – at least in the case of drama and similar. In my case, I archive virtually exclusively factual programming and refer to it, or show it to friends when they come round if it is something important they ought to know about. Or it can sit on the shelf for ages until I want to see it again. But I am probably non-typical. There is certainly a market for DVDs of old TV shows, but when you buy those, you also get a bunch of cool extras and stuff. Will there be the same interest in programme downloads in the long-term? Nobody knows.

But going back to the BBC’s need for time-limited DRM. The only one currently on the market is Microsoft’s, and that only works (of course) on Windows. What a pity it’s not cross-platform. What a pity it’s not Open Source and cross-platform. And while you might think there is a kind of ethical issue about the idea of an Open Source DRM, there isn’t a technical one – look at PGP for example, which is an open-source message security system. It would be entirely possible to develop a cross-platform DRM with the right characteristics – so why not do it?

I do not regard it as being a Good Thing that the BBC’s library is only going to be available to Windows users. The content should be available to all licence-payers. I object especially as the latest Windows OS you are obliged to buy with a new machine, Vista, appears to make even a strong processor weak in the face of its bloatware overload. I’ve recently experienced two brand new Vista-based machines with technical specs that would make them really fast if they were running anything else… but running Vista they are slow as congealing treacle on a winter’s night.

Perhaps the BBC could consider making content that it has produced in-house available with fewer restrictions. Perhaps once the system has been out there a bit the indies will conclude that it really doesn’t matter very much whether people can view them in seven days or not. And thus whether they really need DRM or not.

The other thing, of course, is, as they say in the intelligence business, “To any measure there’s a counter-measure”. Every serious DRM system that anyone has wanted to crack badly enough has been cracked. Hi-def disc copy protection has been cracked. Microsoft’s own Zune has had its DRM cracked. And you can imagine that the DRM on BBC content will be considered worth cracking. Of course, the ordinary person doesn’t know how to do that kind of thing, so so-called ‘criminals will be able to watch BBC programming that ordinary people, especially those with non-Windows computers, will not. Hmph.

But equally you could argue that in fact plenty of people do know how to circumvent copy protection – look how widespread are the applications allowing you to clone DVDs for example – so maybe everyone will be able to do it after all.

But whatever way you look at it, Microsoft-only DRM for BBC downloadable content makes less and less sense the more you think about it.

· Thanks to Andrew Bowden for some of the observations covered in this article – even if I don’t agree with some of them!

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