Ben Laurie blathering

BBC on the iPlayer

An interesting podcast with Ashley Highfield, Director Future Media & Technology.

We’re not doing enough [about open source] and it is something I want to turn up the heat on

Well, that’s a good start, but he then goes on to say

The problem at the moment, there is no open source DRM. It’s almost a contradiction in terms, if you have DRM how can you have it open source? Because open source people will be able to find out how it works and get round it.

Oh, dear. Because, of course, no-one will work out how the Microsoft DRM works, just like they haven’t worked out all the other DRMs out there. Not.

In any case, this entirely misses the point: there is no DRM on the broadcast signal, nor was there on old-fashioned video tapes. Why are downloads different? Why is it not sufficient to rely on the law, as has always happened in the past? Why not assume that your users are mostly honest rather than treat them like criminals?

Clearly there’s a vast amount of money to be made by selling “DRM” solutions to gullible old media companies. It is sad that the BBC, who don’t even have to protect their profits, do not have the collective brains to see through this scam.

Perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel?

Where do we go from here? … The solution then is to say either we look at a future beyond DRM or we’re going to find it very hard to put our content onto open source solutions.

But he is just teasing – they don’t actually look at this future, so I guess their choice is to not put their content onto open source solutions!

On eating your bandwidth

We do make people aware of it

so that’s alright then. He goes on to say

We’ve also got to … work better with the ISPs to ensure that they don’t throttle … iPlayer type content

I think he needs to add Parliament to his list of people to work better with, after the recent lunacy from Lord Triesman

They go on to try to justify the use of DRM in terms of maintaining contact with their audience and their responsibility for the quality of the broadcasts – others could, it seems, put out crappy versions of their free stuff. But hold on, why would anyone download the crappy version when you could have the good version for free from the BBC? Not explained, I suppose it must be obvious.

But it’ll all be alright in the future broadcasting panopticon, when omniscient and omnipotent Auntie can rule, godlike, over all use of “their” content.

Once we get to that stage, where the content, wherever it goes, can have all the rules associated with how it should behave, and once its able to tell us who’s viewing it, where they’re viewing it … then it doesn’t really matter where the content goes

Oh goody! So if I lie back and allow total privacy rape, then kind, generous Auntie will consider relaxing DRM.


  1. Agree entirely on the “there was never DRM on broadcast or video” front. The trouble is, some folk at the BBC who can’t think clearly, have swooped on this apparently-shiny new thing like magpies on the last piece of tinfoil on Earth.

    What is needed, is for sufficient clueful folk that they can’t be ignored, to tell the BBC that “where the rendering device and its environment are under the physical control of the user, DRM for streaming data can’t work. Get over it”.

    I signed the petition on the No. 10 website, and when the BBC was having its consultation period about this, I said the exact same thing. They have clearly been so brainwashed by M$ that they have their fingers stuck in their ears and are going “la la la, not listening”.

    Comment by Dave Walker — 30 Oct 2007 @ 15:04

  2. Dave Walker said:

    > What is needed, is for sufficient clueful folk that they can’t be >ignored, to tell the BBC that “where the rendering device and its >environment are under the physical control of the user, DRM for >streaming data can’t work. Get over it”.

    It would help if the clueful folk told this to the rightsholders. They are the ones who will sue the BBC – or withdraw rights in the future – if the BBC makes their content available for download without DRM.

    Comment by Kevin Hinde — 30 Oct 2007 @ 22:45

  3. The BBC has the unusual exception of being paid for in advance, en masse, by the public through TV licenses. This means the BBC doesn’t need to fund itself though programs full of irritating adverts, or pander to commercial interests.

    The output of the BBC is already in the public domain – it’s paid for by the public and the BBC exists in order to benefit, entertain and educate the public.

    I think if the BBC is going to offer digital output, then high quality content, unfettered by DRM and available on a best-effort basis to all computer platforms is the most effective way of furfilling their service mandate.

    The BBC’s stance on the iPlayer and Windows is in stark contrast to BECTA’s advice to our schools, which are recommended not to sign or renew license agreements to Microsoft to lease their software, on the grounds that Microsoft’s terms represent poor value.

    If BECTA can correctly identify this problem, why is the BBC helping Microsoft rather than Apple, Realplayer, or anyone else with the iPlayer? The BBC should not allow itself to be so blatantly courted by one self-interested organisation at the expense of another.

    Similarly, what about the “One Laptop Per Child”, or other linux-only iniatives that are about to launch and may reshape the computer demographic for the next decade? Why is the BBC censoring itself from these people by putting its output into a form that will not be usable to them?

    Why would the BBC employ people to deliberately design systems that *prevent* people watching BBC content? To me it seems the BBC has forgotten what it’s purpose is.

    Surely the BBC should present the UK’s view to as wide an audience as possible. This was the logic behind the World Service which they ran for most of the last century. Why should the BBC now falter from that?

    Comment by Richard George — 31 Oct 2007 @ 1:25

  4. Good old video tape may not have had “DRM”, but VCRs did have a copy-prevention scheme called “macrovision” that would screw with the vertical hold signal so that copies made from one VCR to another would be too ropey to watch. This defect could be cured using a relatively inexpensive filter to attenuate the macrovision signal, so, as with all copy-prevention schemes, it probably cost a lot more to design and build than it ever cost to circumvent.

    DVD players also have macrovision implementations, and the company, macrovision, still exists, and still creates more of the same irksome problems for the public at large.

    Comment by Dave Stewart — 31 Oct 2007 @ 2:57

  5. I’m not sure DRM won’t work one day.

    Say (virtually) every TV you buy has DRM integrated. Next Hollywood/BBC integrates into every signal they would like to protect an invisible to the user pattern, kinda like those olympic rings that printers use. You just need something that is not visually too distracting while at the same time being virtually impossible to remove from the image without damaging the image.

    Now even if you manage to get an ‘ancient’ HD video recorder that didn’t know about the protection and copy a programme, you will not be able to play that programme on any computer or TV because they will see the rings.

    Of course, they’ll be an arms race again – people write software to remove the rings, the content provider provides better detection for ring removal, people write smarter ring-removal software, the content providers add a ‘this signal has been tampered with’ indicator that is invariably triggered by removing rings, etc, etc. But I do not think that you can say things are going to be won by ‘the pirates’.

    Comment by Corrin — 31 Oct 2007 @ 2:57

  6. Someone needs to have a word with Ashley about Security Through Obscurity

    Comment by Neil — 31 Oct 2007 @ 3:11

  7. At last Ashley Highfield appears to have noticed he is obliged to deliver platform neutrality for iPlayer imposed on him by the BBC Trust. That doesn’t mean he plans to get on with it though, if his recent pronouncements are any thing to be going by.

    He is disingenuous in describing his difficulties with meeting these obligations.   Not least by presenting his position in hyperbolic terms he says he’s not dealing “dealing with anti-Christ” as though that is how he is described by those that would have him meet public service broadcasting obligations.

    Moreover, he continues to conflate the underlying technology used to deliver iPlayer with the requirement to deliver a platform neutrality for users.

    Worse, his proposed walled garden “sop”, streaming video, will do nothing for those that require assistive technologies.

    He repeated the assertion that there is no DRM available for Linux or other *nix alternatives, and asserts in effect that it’s a no-brainer because “as it’s open source it wouldn’t work” (  He should stick to what he knows best, which clearly isn’t how software (FLOSS or not) works. SELinux
    was developed by the National Security Agency and is designed to intrusions and other security issues. It is released as Free Software under the same licence as Linux itself.

    What is true is that Microsoft has persuaded many, including the BBC, to use its DRM, and that it will not licence its DRM to others, thereby creating a lock-in to its video technologies.

    It would have been perfectly possible to produce a solution that met the needs of the widest audience in a manner that did not influence the choice of client technology, nor the purchasing decisions of others.

    All of of this is underpinned by some of the consequences arising from the recent Court of First Instance judgment regarding anti-competitive practices by Microsoft including bundling Windows Media Player. Quoting from paragraph 1152 of the CFI judgment: “Although, generally, standardisation may effectively present certain advantages, it cannot be allowed to be imposed unilaterally by an undertaking in a dominant position by means of tying”.

    And that means you BBC.


    Comment by Gerry — 31 Oct 2007 @ 10:08

  8. Here’s one reason why _we_ the licence payers might want DRM: the BBC makes money through its Worldwide arm by selling BBC content. Yes, it’s true that as licence payers we want the BBC’s output free of DRM. But we’d quite like not to be subsidising the rest of the world. And we’d like to pay less for our licence fee, which is possible if the rest of the world is paying. Is there any way to make downloadable content free in the UK but charge others? Well, it’s true that there’s never going to be a perfect solution, but there may be a good-enough solution if we could charge 80% of viewers who weren’t in the UK. Maybe this is something that could be accomplished through DRM.

    I should say here, that I’m opposed to DRM, but as a producer of digital works, I can see the appeal; if there’s no barrier, then people won’t/can’t pay to be the other side of the barrier.


    Comment by Jeff — 31 Oct 2007 @ 15:32

  9. @Jeff “Yes, it’s true that as licence payers we want the BBC’s output free of DRM. But we’d quite like not to be subsidising the rest of the world.”

    Why not? What about the BBC World Service, BBC World et al? We’ve been doing it for years.

    Your argument, Jeff, is flawed.

    Comment by dogStar — 31 Oct 2007 @ 16:08

  10. Playing devil’s advocate:

    >In any case, this entirely misses the point: there is no DRM on the broadcast signal

    Indeed, but next you need to present arguments as to why an encrypted BBC broadcast signal is a *bad* thing, otherwise people may be tempted to conclude that there should be DRM on it. For many years there was DRM on the BBC’s broadcast signal to tens of millions of people who subscribed to Sky – what societal losses were associated with this? After all, BBC pulled out of this arrangement to save the cash they paid Sky to encrypt rather than complaints from licence fee payers.

    >nor was there on old-fashioned video tapes. Why are downloads different?

    Because non-DRM downloads are geographically unbounded (unlike broadcast signals) and virtually frictionless to copy and share globally (unlike VHS). And TV rights are still sold country by country, and on the basis of broadcast, repeat and DVD rights all being distinct and seperable.

    ALso, see point in comment above about UK licence fee payer funding non-UK consumption. You might be OK with this as an inhabitant of the internet. Your average licence fee payer certainly is not. Such is human nature.

    This is also why there will be ads on international versions of BBC News Website – the Foreign Office (who used to fund it via World Service)decided that there were better ways to spend scarce Foreign Office cash (eg BBC Arabic TV), rather than subsidising english-speaking web users outside the UK.

    >Why not assume that your users are mostly honest rather than treat them like criminals?

    Because the people who sell their IP to the BBC do not take this view at present. And masss market TV is a sellers market. See Creative Archive ad nauseum.

    To my mind, the core question is this: Today, is a non-DRM iPlayer containing (say) 30% of BBC programmes better value to UK licence fee payers than a (much less clean and capable) DRM version containing 99% of BBC programmes?

    When answering this question, remember that, by virtue of reading this blog, you are a member of a tiny minority of expert users who probably knows where to find BBC programmes on the darknets anyway – and so it wouldn’t be you sacrificing access to 70% of BBC programmes on the alter of DRM. It’d be your aunt, or equivalent thereof.

    If DRM delivers negative consumer value it’ll die in time.

    Couldn’t a DRM’d iPlayer be a useful accelerant of this inevitable process?

    Comment by Tom Loosemore — 31 Oct 2007 @ 17:14

  11. dogstar,

    World Service is funded by the Foreign Office, Worldwide is a (BBC-owned) commercial company – neither is paid for by the license fee. So Jeff’s argument is not undermined by these examples.

    What I don’t understand is why anyone really believes that if the BBC was able to do the cheapest and most technically simple solution i.e. no DRM using an open standard, that they wouldn’t. Like most broadcasters they are trying to persuade the rights holders that this is a new world but without being able to offer the same revenue streams as other broadcasters, at least within the UK, it’s a tough argument to win. Sure they could probably be faster in migrating to other formats, sure they are uncomfortably in bed with Microsoft but currently the rights holders are the most obstructive parties.

    Nick C

    Comment by NickC — 31 Oct 2007 @ 17:28

  12. I have been wondering for some time now just how long it will be until the BBC encrypts their digital output – regardless of recording. I can see a possibility that decryption is only permitted when the licnce fee has been paid and key has been provided.
    Soooo… what’s wrong with paranoia then?

    Comment by TerryB — 31 Oct 2007 @ 17:40

  13. Aha TerryB, many people already want BBC Freeview transmissions to be encrypted anyway, so that they can legally opt-out of paying the TV/”BBC” Licence. They seem to be making enough money privately anyway, why can’t we let the “Corporation” streamline itself and provide ad-free services to those who subscribe — like HBO — and possibly ads (or just nothing) for those who don’t?

    The World Service is even funded out of general taxation, and the BBC itself is already under pressure by the UK government regardless. So I think the “let’s not allow for political interference” argument is somewhat moot. The current situation isn’t really compatible with the “Internet Age” — I don’t want to pay for radio stations I never listen to, unless they admit that it’s a tax and it’s spread amongst every citizen as a true “Public Service”. Then it would be cheaper, surely? Hang on, why couldn’t the BBC take a bit of government funding to produce content, along with its private revenue sources (which apparently account for 70% of its earnings these days), and give back some of the profit that it doesn’t reinvest?

    Comment by Marc Kirkwood — 17 Jan 2008 @ 0:11

  14. Note that in referring to radio stations, I forgot to mention the BBC website, which streams media at a greater cost than the conventional broadcasts themselves.

    This is why I’m glad P2P was adopted. If only the ISPs would shut up about their “scarce and precious bandwidth” being “overwhelmed” when they should reinvest more in their infrastructure in the first place, and stop overselling their “fast” offerings — surely people who pay for a set speed should actually get what they pay for, and not be ridiculously capped at less than 1GB a day as I am with my 4Mb Virgin Media connection these days? I find the latency appalling, and occasionally pings time out for no reason other than a few torrents that still don’t add up to anywhere near 40GB per month! And this goes on for at least 4 hours a day, whenever the download limit is exceeded in peak times — I don’t think the supposed 20Mb customers are happy that their speed may be throttled after less than a minute…

    But I would’ve preferred a BitTorrent approach rather than Kontiki, which is owned by VeriSign now. Then again, if it’s a better technology… From what I’ve read though, it is a bit of a bandwidth hog — is it as customisable as BitTorrent?

    Comment by Marc Kirkwood — 17 Jan 2008 @ 0:23

  15. Oh and yes, I’ve tried lots of Quality of Service settings on my Linksys router with OpenWRT firmware, and even when I stop the torrents the whole connection seems sluggish at times.

    Comment by Marc Kirkwood — 17 Jan 2008 @ 0:31

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