Free the BBC from the same old tired DRM debate

 by Martin Belam, 13 June 2007

I was pointed via Wonderland yesterday at the Free The BBC site, where a petition is gathering against the BBC's proposed use of DRM in the upcoming iPlayer application.


And of course, a quick look shows that this has sparked the same tired circular arguments on the mailing list.

One person has been arguing that DRM is a bad thing because their sister accidentally wiped clean their iPod, whilst someone else is claiming the only basis for the BBC's decision to use Microsoft's DRM system in the iPlayer is for personal financial gain.

"If you had taken 1 minute to ask anyone knowledgeable you would know that a secure system such as encryption is NOT compromised in anyway if the algorithm is known, thus there is no damage from using a published standardised format. Why have you not done so? The only reason I can think of is someone at the BBC has shares in Microsoft!"

From "I don't like Microsoft" to "therefore someone in the technological decision making process at the BBC must be corrupt" is quite an extrapolation in my book.

I haven't joined in the debate myself this time, thus nobody has had a chance to insult my wife yet, but what saddens me is that people are so quick to jump on the 'DRM = evil' argument that they neglect to notice that 'paying to make a programme to show once on TV in the UK != giving it away for free in perpetuity around the globe'.

The majority of points made in the Free The BBC open letter are redundant.

Claiming that the industry is 'moving away' from DRM is not the same as saying that nobody else in the industry is using DRM anymore.

And as ever, Steve Jobs, the figurehead of the monopolistic proprietary AAC FairPlay format and iTunes / iPod combo that is stifling competition in the music download market, is heralded for having written one open letter saying "wouldn't be nice if we hadn't done that".

The Free The BBC campaigners say that all DRM systems get cracked.

It might be news to them, but I'm sure that nobody at the BBC is under any illusion that the iPlayer DRM won't be cracked quickly. Nor will the BBC be surprised when the press run stories about how the BBC has 'wasted' £n million on software that has been hacked within 12 days of its release (or however long it takes).

However, the basic business model supporting the on demand distribution of DRM flavoured content is that the DRM restrictions only have to stay in place sufficiently in order to keep the rights holders happy that their subsequent DVD releases, repeat transmission fees and overseas sales revenue are not going to be decimated by the iPlayer.

Of course the DRM won't stop piracy, or stop the computer-savvy ripping Windows Media streams into their preferred Ogg Vorbis format, or stop people using UKNova, but it tends to make the expected level of piracy tolerable for the people investing in television production.

After the most recent deals negotiated with PACT and reviews of the BBC's production capacity, between 25% and 50% of the BBC's television output has to be made by independent producers, and they have greater control over the exploitation of the associated new media distribution rights than ever before. Radio also has an independent production quota, and 15% of the BBC's Future Media spend also has to go outside the Corporation.

This system is designed to keep a healthy ecosystem running in the UK's media industry. The fact that the cancellation of the BBC Jam project is costing £0.5m and jobs at an independent producer like Tinopolis illustrates that the Corporation does not operate in anything like splendid isolation anymore.

Decisions made in Broadcasting House and Television Centre have consequences in the commercial sector.

The Free the BBC letter makes a specific point that by using Microsoft's or Real's technology, the BBC is

"in effect subsidizing unrelated private enterprises"

as if the BBC never had any commercial suppliers in any other area of business.

In addition, it isn't clear to me how they can also argue that launching the service initially on the most popular platform in the UK, Windows, is distorting the market against Mac and Linux users, but that flooding the internet ecosystem with DRM-free downloads of everything made for British television and paid for by the Licence Fee isn't going to interfere with and distort the commercial market for entertainment.

Whatever the anti-DRM zealots think, the BBC is simply not in a position to give away other people's intellectual property and potential future earnings.

Production companies like Endemol and Baby Cow expect people to pay for their content when it is distributed online by ITV and Channel 4.

At the very least, when the BBC is distributing the content it has commissioned from them online, they expect a semblance of protection of their property.

The reason the number of DRM-free mp3 podcasts files available from the BBC is low is because there are so few shows where the BBC wholly owns the rights to the formats, and has been able to negotiate deals with the production companies and on air talent. And note that this service is still a trial over 2 years since it was first announced.

Many of the signatories of the Free The BBC open letter seem to be under the illusion that the BBC is about to throw up the British media equivalent of the Great Firewall of China, and lock everybody outside the UK, and everyone not using Windows Media Player, out of the BBC's services.

The use of the DRM system only affects the iPlayer downloads of TV programme for catch-up viewing. That is a new service, over and above the existing distribution of BBC content on air and on demand via some cable services and the internet.

The listen again radio service won't be affected.

The Download and Podcast trial will continue to provide DRM-free mp3 downloads free at the point of delivery.

Radio stations will still be streamed live.

The BBC News site will still have video clips.

None of this is going to have DRM applied to it.

And the ultimate point that the petition writers miss is that whilst they believe 'DRM = evil', the BBC's legal, technical and strategic teams know that frankly 'no DRM = no BBC TV download service at all'.

You might also be interested in BBC iPlayer launch: The first 14 days, or other articles from my BBC and iPlayer categories.


Yup. Wot he said.

If I didn't know better I'd assume that some of the people on that list were paid by the RIAA et al. to discredit/ satirise the position of anti-DRM zealots.

I'm not looking. I'm sticking my fingers in my ears and shoting LALALALA because otherwise I will be forced to travel several thousand miles to BOSTON (hint: not the one in Lincolnshire), where these "Free the BBC" arseholes are based, and shout in their faces about how none of this is any of their feckin' business.

This would reduce the amount of time I have today to do other things.



My apologies - somebody left a comment about two hours after I posted this, but I deleted it instead of publishing it.

Not because I can't take criticism, you understand, but more because it was in amongst about fifty spam comments which had rolled in during the same time period. With only having dial-up I selected it for deletion and pressed "Go" before I realised it wasn't actually yet another invite to look at underage pr0n or buy performance enhancing pharms.

I believe, from the opening line, it was going to make a point about how even though 'Listen Again' et al don't have DRM, they are still in proprietary formats that are not universally accessible.

I would welcome it being re-posted.

One small point Martin. The non DRM audio podcasting service has now been approved by the BBC Trust and will become a full service (not a trial) very soon.

"Whatever the anti-DRM zealots think, the BBC is simply not in a position to give away other people's intellectual property and potential future earnings."

The BBC has not said how much more non-DRM distribution would cost. Either the budget would be the same and less would be distributed, or the budget would grow to enable distribution of the same amount. Either way is great, because inflicting DRM is not acceptable from anyone, let alone a pubic broadcaster.

"the BBC's legal, technical and strategic teams know that frankly 'no DRM = no BBC TV download service at all'."

No BBC TV download service is better than a BBC DRM TV download service, because the use of DRM legitimises it, makes it entrenched, and robs the public of their freedoms. Giving up freedom is a foolish slippery slope.

The BBC frames itself as a victim, but being a victim does not excuse its participation.

Interesting article and some good points. Although I disagree in general and think that the DRM adds little value to the platform.

However the issue is more complicated than that, and you are right to present a balanced view of some of the implications. I still think the end result of being DRM free would do more than good for the BBC, but I am happy for this to be left as personal opinion.

One thing you got categorically wrong however was your view on AAC.

You say

And as ever, Steve Jobs, the figurehead of the monopolistic proprietary AAC format and iTunes / iPod combo that is stifling competition in the music download market

Whilst iTunes/iPod may be stifling the music market, AAC has nothing to do with it. And stifling is a matter of conjecture or opinion as much as the views on whether DRM is good or bad is.

As for AAC, to quote Jon Gruber at Daring Fireball

AAC is not “unique” to Apple. It’s not even controlled or invented by Apple, or any other single company. It is an ISO standard that was invented by engineers at Dolby, working with companies like Fraunhofer, Sony, AT&T, and Nokia. Licensing is controlled by Via.

Some Facts About AAC and A Wee Bit More on AAC, Ogg, and MP3 for more details.

Fair play Adrian, good point. Clearly it was FairPlay that locked me out of my own content earlier this year, which most certainly is an Apple technology, not the AAC compression technology.

And stifling is a matter of conjecture or opinion as much as the views on whether DRM is good or bad is.

Having been on the receiving end of the stifling in a couple of pieces of work, I know where my conjecture lies ;-)

And whilst fairplay is one of the most liberal DRM platforms around your problem highlights a fundamental problem with DRM, that it's going to stop honest people doing honest things. This is true of any DRM platform.

Which is why I'm glad EMI and Apple have realised iTunes Plus and DRM free content (which I've upgraded my eligible tracks too) and hope that the other labels stop trying to throw stones at barn doors and do the same.

I'm sure their are instances where Apple is stifling competition. However I don't think this is lock in as much as building good products.

The same way in the 90's I believed Microsoft was doing wonders to accelerate the computer industry, I believe Apple is doing the same now in the digital music industry, and overall the health of the industry is better off for it. One can't say the iPod stifled the Zune, and in fact if you look at the deals Microsoft has done in the 00's then they have been attempting far more stifling.

All of course, in my very humble opinion.

I don't see how the BBC iPlayer DRM will be a huge problem.

It will clearly be hacked pretty quickly, and no doubt there will soon be third-party players capable of sharing the files over the P2P network and then removing the DRM.

The BBC surely know this, and probably aren't that bothered - they're only using DRM to keep the production companies happy.

So we all win?

With all due respects, I find it insulting to be considered a "zealot" for using Linux.

The BBC is not just using DRM, it's using _MS/Windows-ONLY_ DRM.

Even as a _commercial_ software developer, I absolutely disagree this has anything to do with protecting someone's IP.

Jens, I don't think you'll find anywhere that I have called people Zealots for using Linux.

For a start, currybetdotnet is a pure LAMP production, and I was producer on the first project at BBC News to use Red Hat in the production environment, so I'm pretty confident of my own Linux credentials.

However, you then go on to say "I absolutely disagree this has anything to do with protecting someone's IP"

The thing is, I really just don't understand exactly what it is about the following few stated facts that are so difficult for people to get to grips with:

1) The rights-holders want time-windowed (excuse the pun) DRM

2) Microsoft's DRM is at the moment the only solution on the market that meets that criteria

3) Using Microsoft DRM reaches over 90% of the UK computer market, making it the most economical platform to stage an initial launch on.

4) The BBC is committed to supporting other platforms within 24 months, at great incremental cost compared to the proportion of the market being supplied, and only when the DRM to be applied to those platforms can be agreed to the satisfaction of the rights holders.

5) Launching a new service only for 90% of the computer market (about 40% of the UK population) does not take away any of the existing way that programmes are distributed.

1. They want it, but they should not get it, because these unreasonable restrictions trample our freedom, and the freedom of those less savvy with computers.

That is the issue here - the cross platform issue is a complete red herring.

I thought that the only content that would be available on demand from the BBC was BBC owned, therefore there are no external copyright holders to demand restrictions. "The rights-holders want time-windowed (excuse the pun) DRM": the only rights holders are the BBC themselves.

Martin, I don't think you have studied your place of work good enough. May I suggest you read BBC Charter as a start. It says that "The BBC exists to serve the public interest" by "promoting education and learning" "through the provision of output which consists of information, education and
entertainment, supplied by means of (a) television, radio and online services; (b) similar or related services which make output generally available".

In short, the BBC is funded by the British nation to educate and entertain this nation, while making it available for everybody. The BBC productions are paid by the licence fee. Since the works in question were commenced by and paid by the public, there is a question whether DRM can be applied to these works at all. There is no question that providing these works for free serves BBC's purpose better, since it may now reach every licence fee payer, and not only Windows-based licence fee payer.

Firstly I should just stress again that this is a personal site and my personal opinions, and add that I have not worked full time at the BBC since December 2005.

Martin, I don't think you have studied your place of work good enough. May I suggest you read BBC Charter as a start.

Efi, respectfully I have to disagree. I'm well aware of what the BBC's Charter states, but, I'm also aware that the BBC Charter does not grant the BBC any kind of exemption from the copyright laws that apply to the rest of the media.

See that episode of Doctor Who with the battle at Canary Wharf? Paid for by the Licence Fee? See those Daleks? The copyright in them is owned by Terry Nation's estate. See those Cybermen? Well the BBC always gives credit to Kit Pedler for them. Hear the music? Murray Gold owns the copyright to that. See that TARDIS? The BBC fought a legal battle over whether that was a BBC trademark or whether they had to pay royalties to the police everytime they used it. See that David Tennant? He wants paying every time his performance is transmitted on television, or sold on a DVD.

The BBC pays for the production of programmes and for the rights to broadcast them on television a certain number of times within a certain time-limit.

If they want to use shows again after that, they have to negotiate new payments with the rights holders to transmit the material again.

As I've said many times - I would personally prefer to see a platform agnostic DRM-free iPlayer, but the people to convince to make that happen are not the BBC. It is the representatives of the David Tennants, and the Murray Golds, and the estates of Terry Nation and Kit Pedler that need convincing that their future income can be protected, instead of their work just being given away for nothing.

It has taken years of negotiation with organisations like PACT and Equity for the BBC to even get to the point of being able to offer time-limited catch-up downloads of TV.

All the broadcasters (SKY, Channel4, BBC, etc.) have made the same mistake (or tried to do it on the cheap - choose your phrase) and drunk the kool-aid on P2P.

DRM is merely reflective of the rightsholders fear of the underlying technology.

- By using a peer-to-peer system the broadcasters have lost control of their content.
- The rightsholders recognise that this superdistribution model is fundamentally different from the broadcast model, in terms of scarce resources, content reproduction and control.
- DRM is seen as the panacea.

Spectrum is a scarce resource. There is a limited number of channels broadcasting a broad church of content. With peer-to-peer, as long as one person is willing to host the content then you can have, in effect, a dedicated channel to Doctor_Who.S03E11.MP4, The_Blue_Planet.S01E05.MP4, etc.

With the broadcast model, the broadcaster pumps out the content and moves on. What the person watching does with the content is not part of the pact the broadcasters have with the rightsholders. In a non-Internet world, reproduction on a global scale required a large capital investment. This meant a limited number of broadcasters with whom the rightsholders negotiated. This is no longer the case. Content reproduction and distribution just got "pwned" by the masses. Copyright law is not capable, at the moment, of dealing with the DRM-free P2P model. Rightsholders have no means of dealing with this new model and so seek to impose a technological control solution on top of the new distribution architecture.

So DRM is seen as a means of restricting content reproduction and imposing control on the distribution - in effect creating an artificial scarce resource.

The mistake the broadcasters have made is in believing in the underlying P2P technology without fully getting buy-in from the rightsholders (and a change copyright law - a task best left to the "pirates" who won't get sued out of extinction). DRM and cross-platform issues are merely manifestations of the underlying issues.

There are other technological solutions to replace P2P. I believe this will happen. We will then look back on this period as a glorious failure by the broadcasters in trying one technology, which was ultimately supplanted by a better technological solution (cf Baird's 240 line broadcasts versus Marconi's 405 line system).


P2P systems aren't going away - but neither are the legal problems associated with them. In the end, the technological compromises to meet the legal obligations (which the BBC must comply with) simply make them the wrong platform, in my opinion, on which to distribute your content.

Having said all the above, Ian Betteridge comes along and makes the case that the BBC has been regulated out of the innovation market - so there may well be a better technological solution - it just may not be coming from the BBC.

Fleecing people by selling them DRM files they can't use fairly and lawfully under the guise of "music store" is morally bankrupt. Equally, using DRM to provide a catch up TV service without shooting yourself in the foot over DVD sales is genius.

there should not not be a problem with BBC iPlayer DRM.

why the hell it should be a problem. looks a great tool and should work fine

The fact is, that Microsoft's DRM also prevents fair dealing format shifting by making moved files unplayable, driving people to non-kosher sources to be able to play what they've paid for. Source: I used to be a customer of MusiWave.

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