Microsoft Strikes Again 

10 January 2008

It was bad enough that the BBC’s iPlayer excluded tens of thousands of licence-payers by being Windows-only (they had to introduce a lower-quality flash-based service that rapidly acquired eight times as many users). Now Classic FM, the UK’s most popular commercial radio station, has done the self-same thing by making its “MyClassicFM” multichannel music service Windows-only. The claimed reasons for this, as with the BBC, are that they want DRM on their streams; only Windows Media offers DRM; and Windows Media can only be played on Windows. Particularly in Classic FM’s case, these arguments appear to be largely fallacious.

Having started some weeks ago to offer a ‘Listen Again’ service modelled on the BBC service of the same name – where you can listen to programmes on-line up to a week after their original broadcast – Classic FM, GMap’s popular national commercial radio station, has now introduced a multi-stream service called ‘MyClassic FM’, providing six streams of different classical and neo-classical sub-genres which you can then customise to focus on music that you particularly like.

But, like the BBC’s iPlayer, the special player that is required for MyClassic FM is Windows-only, thus excluding thousands of potential listeners.

While in the case of iPlayer there is a possible reason, in Classic FM’s case it is hard to see why they needed to take this route – and in fact, why they needed to use DRM at all. It sounds instead as if they have been sold a package by Microsoft and simply took the easy way out, disenfrachising a growing proportion of the listening audience who do not use Windows machines.

The excuse given on the Classic FM website is as follows:

“There is currently no Mac or Linux support as we’re using Windows Media format and we need to put some Digital Rights Management over our player to ensure that the musicians and performers are paid their royalties. There is no Windows DRM on Mac or Linux which prevents us from giving you access to MyClassic FM.”

That of course is rubbish on several counts. And of course you can play Windows Media on a Macintosh with ease – the Flip4Mac plugin for QuickTime has been around for years now. But MyClassicFM doesn’t support Safari, Firefox or Opera – only bloody security-risk-Internet-Exploder – so that’s out too.

There is an open-source DRM project out there that would be ready in short order given investment from people like the BBC and GMap. But no… they just take the Microsoft shilling and blow off thousands of listeners.

And why do they need to stick DRM on their streams at all “to ensure that the musicians and performers are paid their royalties”? There are thousands of internet radio stations out there that are perfectly legal and licensed – particularly those run by existing free-to-air broadcasters – who do not use DRM on their streams. In fact it’s almost unheard of. Classic FM themselves, on their main stream, for example. Why don’t they purchase the appropriate standard webcasting licences and pay for the services from overall broadcast ad revenue, just like their main stream?

And this is the nub of the issue. To broadcast on the Internet in the UK you need two licenses: a PRS/MCPS (Performing Right Society/Mechanical Copyright Protection Society – the two organisations have joined forces) Webcasting Licence, and a PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited) Webcasting Licence. The former pays the UK publishers that controls the rights to songs played, while the latter pays the UK record companies that control the rights to each recording.

These licences are calculated on the basis of the number of songs you play and how many listeners you have, although the actual basis differs slightly between the two. In the case of a regular broadcast stream, you have to give fairly detailed accounting to the appropriate bodies so they can apportion royalties and there are reciprocal arrangements with many other countries for listeners outside the UK. This is presumably what Classic FM already does for its primary stream. MyClassic FM is a set of interactive services and there are special provisions for this kind of approach (known as ‘Customised Radio Services’, logically enough), as there are for ‘Listen Again’ services.

It is tempting to cut the BBC some slack here, incidentally, and argue that as they originate the programming they not only have to pay for the music recordings (for example) that they include in a programme; they also own the rights to the original content in the programme itself (I am thinking of drama and talk programming primarily here where this is significant, as opposed to a music programme) and therefore might arguably wish to protect the rights thereto – but even this is not particularly legitimate because you could have listened to the original programme off-air in the first place with no DRM at all, recorded it and done whatever you wanted with it. You are being penalised because you missed it the first time round.

MyClassicFM, however, is not a ‘Listen Again’ collection of programmes that you can choose to listen to after they have been free-to-air (though Classic FM also offers this service – and it theoretically works on a Macintosh, although it requires the obsolete Windows Media Player 9 which is not compatible with the current operating system, and does not properly support the Flip4Mac QuickTime plug-in that is the Microsoft-recommended method of listening to WMA streams under Macintosh OS X). MyClassicFM is merely a set of interactive streams containing pieces of music, for which a relatively simple licence structure exists (nothing in the music licensing field is actually ‘simple’). So, unlike the BBC, which might have an argument, albeit an astonishingly weak one, for requiring DRM on its iPlayer, Classic FM has no such luxury.

And lest we be accused of missing the point, there is a requirement (in the PRS/MCPS Limited Online Exploitation Licence or LOEL, for example) for “Security and Encryption” (see full wording below*). It requires licensees to do their best to stop people recording the stream, until an “industry security standard” is available. Well Windows DRM is not such a standard and you can still record a Windows DRM stream. Until such a standard is developed, a Licensee “must use its reasonable endeavours to prevent unauthorised copying… [etc]… by whatever technical means are practicable”.

But the fact is that, basically, when it comes to listening to internet streams from your computer, you can record them if you wish, DRM or not. If it comes out of your computer’s sound card – ie if you can hear it – you can capture it with a vast array of software from free to cheap on any platform or, worst case, record from the sound card’s audio output. If the fact is that “if you can hear it you can record it”, this clause in the LOEL can never be implemented, by definition. There is no “industry security standard”, and even if there was, it could be broken by anyone, easily. Always.

Thus, whatever the point of DRMing an audio stream is, stopping you recording it is not it. Classic FM does not suggest, of course, that they use DRM to stop you recording the music – that would annoy even more people – but in any case, if meeting that strangely-worded clause in the LOEL was the hidden agenda here, it’s already failed.

In fact it’s hard to say what the reason for DRM on MyClassic FM is. Classic FM says that it’s “to ensure that the musicians and performers are paid their royalties” but that’s patent nonsense because there is a licensing structure to ensure that royalties are paid on just this kind of service without requiring that the licensee DRM their content – and it’s the broadcaster that’s responsible for paying the royalties, after all, not the listeners. If the idea is to keep a record of all the tracks you listen to, so that the station can pay the appropriate royalties, that requires a logging system, not DRM.

It is just possible, though, that the reason Classic FM is using Windows Media DRM is as a quick fix for this logging requirement. Normally your server statistics system would keep a log of who listens to what, but you could use Windows DRM to do it for you. At a pretty hefty price, namely angering and excluding thousands of listeners.

So is it to stop you nicking the pieces of music and keeping them? Well, no, because you can do that anyway – and apart from anything else people hearing things on the radio is a proven way of selling records, and one that has worked since records were first played on the radio and was not adversely impacted when the ability to record them off-air came along. Record companies should want listening to a service to be easy!

Unfortunately the record companies have a long history of saying, “How do we stop people doing this?” when they should be asking, “How do we make money by encouraging people to do this?”, and of adopting a business model in which the customer is the enemy – neither of which are the most obvious ways of keeping your head above water. And, surprise, surprise… they aren’t keeping their heads above water. Increasingly, artists are going it alone and selling via web sites, MySpace and so on and not working with record companies in the traditional sense at all.

There are lots of questions about GMap’s actions here, and, in my view, no satisfactory answers. What is the real story here? The public needs to know. We should be told.

And when will it be fixed?

There is more to this than meets the eye. When the BBC introduced their iPlayer last year, they received a great deal of stick for excluding non-Windows listeners. As a result, the BBC introduced their flash-based online viewing system which offers access to the same content but at lower quality than the downloaded iPlayer version. Very quickly they found that the ratio of online visitors using the flash player to the downloaded iPlayer was eight to one (proving, incidentally, that Windows-only approaches do not work). But not only was this is welcome development for the BBC on the PR front, it was a lucky escape. Because the service is popular. So popular that even in the initial tests of iPlayer, the amount of traffic was giving ISPs major headaches. But that is a story for another day.

*The full LOEL wording on “Security and Encryption” is as follows:

“Unless agreed otherwise, the Licensee will utilise or require the utilisation of an industry security standard which is developed and is available for use in the protection of Repertoire Works. Until such time, the Licensee must use its reasonable endeavours to prevent unauthorised copying and/or the unauthorised issuing of copies of Repertoire Works by whatever technical means are practicable. Upon request the Licensee will inform the Licensors concerning its progress in relation to fulfilling this obligation.”

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