Open source lobby: "We’ll get the EU to stop your telly"

For some reason media seems to be on my mind at the moment....

The BBC i-player is to go live at the end of July. This follows Channel 4''s "4OD" service (I'm a bit peeved the that it's not available on Vista today, but C4 tell me it's in the Pipeline) . Five has five download, Sky have "Sky Anytime" and  which is also XP only (not Vista) . They use the same off-the-shelf DRM package which is already present on most of the world's PCs: Windows media player.

Performers, writers and others involved in a production are paid based on how many people have access to something. Releases on DVD carry a fee. Repeats carry a fee. I don't know, but I suspect there is a difference between "catch again" repeats - i.e. the ones on BBC Three the next day - and "real" repeat-as-nearly-new-content - the ones which run 2 years later on UK Gold.

In the UK section 70 of the Copyrights designs and Patents Act says "The making for private and domestic use of a recording of a broadcast or cable programme solely for the purpose of enabling it to be viewed or listened to at a more convenient time does not infringe any copyright in the broadcast or cable programme or in any work included in it" - when I wrote about giving media center's recordings "a permanence they weren't supposed to have" that was in the back of my mind.

It's  easy to see that a "catch-up" download service belongs in the same category as the "time-shift" Video recording, and "catch again repeats", but giving people copies to keep belongs to the same category as selling the programme on DVD. So how does one ensure that a service is catch-up, and not keep-a-copy. That's where DRM comes in. It's a technology which gets a bad press, because it means restricting what people can do. Classically when you bought a record or a CD there was no mechanism to stop you making copies: DRM defines what you can do, and everything else is forbidden; which isn't nice. Of course there is a trade off, because if the restrictions are tolerable and it means I get something that would otherwise languish a vault somewhere that's fine with me. 

A DRM application decrypts the content and does what it is allowed to do and no more. This means you can't have open source DRM: the first thing that would happen is that someone would produce a version that dumped out the unencrypted information. This isn't to say a "secret source" DRM app can't run on an Open Source OS. Microsoft could produce media player for Linux. But there are a number of reasons why this is unlikely. (a) Why would we help the adoption of a competing platform ? (b) Some Linux users are pragmatists - people who like to dig into the code of the OS. But others are ideologues who would not have Microsoft software on their machine even it were free. There is also a subset who would not accept DRM from any vendor because to their way of thinking does not allow for intellectual property rights.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the "Open Source Consortium"  have weighed in. In the BBC's report of their threat to go to the EU, their president is quoted as saying  "In an ideal world all DRM would be removed". In his world perhaps; to the broadcasters who wouldn't distribute content that could be watched forever that's not ideal at all. The OSC's web site shows they have been trying to stop the BBC i-Player by talking to the UK regulator Ofcom. Ofcom appear to have given them the response they deserved. With Channels 4,5 and Sky are already using this technology and don't support anything but Windows; the fact that BBC downloadable content isn't available on Linux is not going to sway people who want Linux to buy Windows. They also try to muddy the waters using the EUs ruling which forced the creation of "N" versions of XP and Vista without Media player. To the broadcasters it is fantastic  for the same player to be on 90% of computers with broadband. The EU competition commission is charged with promoting competition (they don't act on behalf of consumers) to them 20 competing players with less than 10% is far better than one with 90%.  That doesn't give a platform which gets services delivered.

Comments (8)
  1. Anonymous says:

    I was about to say some things about Vista and TV when I realized I had actually said them a few months

  2. James ONeill says:

    Without DRM some content won’t get released (the BBC stuff is a case in point).

    Apple don’t want to open up their DRM because it locks iPod owners into the iTunes store.

    You can’t have Open Source DRM apps and the Open source community don’t like DRM anyhow.

    So the question really is should Microsoft do Windows-Media Player for mac (like we do office for mac) – what about Windows Media player for Linux ?

  3. James ONeill says:

    Mark, I think you missed the point about the whole back catalogue being downloadable. It would be great if for the BBC (et al) if they could charge for their back catalog. It’s hard to do that if free downloads last forever and can be freely swapped. To make money out the back catalogue AND offer a "replay" service.

    You say

    " multiple competing DRM systems are anti-consumer as they impinge on the ease of use."

    I’m confused, was that a mis-edit or are you’re now arguing FOR a monopoly …

    Look, only the courts will get Apple to open up the iPod and give up the monopoly the iTunes store has. (And the French nearly did). Since Apple’s DRM works under windows the BBC could have made everyone get that – which would be less unpopular than their previous use of Real Player. But every other maker of Music players would be up in arms.

    We could bring back Windows-Media player-for-mac but I threw out the question orginally. Would the Linux commmunity (who are the ones complaining here) accept a Microsoft player ?

  4. James ONeill says:

    You should understand that Apple makes money from having a closed eco-system round iTunes – open up the DRM to other vendors (as the French wanted) and people would have to buy from the iTunes store. I don’t see any prospect of our hacking the iPod to put code on it to support another kind of DRM.

    I can see EMI making it’s catalogue available DRM-Free to paying customers (at a premium and with tracing infomrmation in the file). But You’d have to change TV and Radio contracts to do the same – if there is no time limit, why not put the whole back catalogue up for on-demand download. If performers aren’t paid for those downloads, why pay repeat fees ?

    Net: until it’s chilly in hell there were be DRM. If a world without DRM isn’t a choice, which benefits consumers ? Making stuff available with DRM or not making it available at all ?

    Would you want the BBC to spend millions writing, testing and supporting an in-house cross platform DRM product, or putting the money into making TV and using a DRM platform which is already on most users computers ?

  5. Mark Wilson says:

    Hi James,

    Whilst taking on board your comments re: permanence, we have been able to do this for years with analogue recordings – it’s only now that digital media is taking a hold that the media companies are getting concerned.

    I for one was pretty annoyed when instead of the Now Show (a popular BBC Radio 4 comedy), my chosen podcatcher captured a recording that told me the availability of such shows as podcasts was a trial that had now ended and that I could still listen again online for up to 7 days.

    Pah!  BBC/Channel 4 or whoever – DRM… grrr…  limiting a service to a single platform (even one with 90% market share of the OPERATING SYSTEM market) is not in the interests of consumers.  The open source guys may have got it wrong (and the EU certainly did with Windows XP N) – but so have the major software vendors.  I’d like to see all media companies follow EMI’s example and release content in a DRM-free format but I also appreciate that blue moons are rare and it will be a cold day in hell before that happens.  So, why doesn’t the operating system vendor with 90% of the market start working to make its minority DRM schemes (yes, plural – Zune and Plays4Sure) compatible with Apple’s FairPlay (i.e. for the media platform with 90% of the digital media market).  Ah yes… co-operation for the benefit of consumers… guess we’re back to that day when hell freezes over 😉

    </ mark>

    P.S. Shameless plug – I wrote a bit on this subject back in February –  – some things have moved on since then but most of what I wrote still stands.

  6. Mark Wilson says:


    I’ll freely admit that you make some valid points… and I definitely don’t want to turn this discussion into an Apple vs. Microsoft one – there are far better things to discuss in this world, especially on a Microsoft blog!

    "Why not put the whole back catalogue up for on-demand download"

    Why not indeed?  Price it around the same as for existing VHS or DVD-based distributions and share the royalties in a similar manner.  This would also get around some of the issues with limiting the BBC’s Internet content to UK consumers. And the way that EMI have opened their music catalogue is particularly interesting – I can have the low-quality DRM-restricted version for one price, or the higher-quality, DRM-free version for a small (25%) premium (both versions contain tracking information).

    Quoting you from elsewhere "If legal copies are easy to work with and cheap the incentive for piracy goes away"

    Absolutely – which is why multiple competing DRM systems are anti-consumer as they impinge on the ease of use.  Seems to me that the French had something right in wanting Apple to open up its closed ecosystem.

    "Would you want the BBC to spend millions writing, testing and supporting an in-house cross platform DRM product" No. If we have to have DRM, I’d like Apple, Microsoft and whoever else to work together and provide an industry standard that we can all use, whatever the operating system.

    Cheers, Mark

  7. Mark Wilson says:

    I’m not arguing FOR a monopoly… I’m just saying if we have to have DRM (personally, I’m not convinced that it is absolutely necessary), then that the major vendors should work together and define a common standard so that ease of use is maintained for all consumers, regardless of their device/platform choice.

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