iPlayer On, iPlayer Off
The BBC's iPlayer has long been a thorn in the side of the Open Source community. Since it entered public beta in mid-2007, the BBC has consistently flip-flopped between completely ignoring FOSS users, serving them third-rate pacifier versions, and begrudgingly granting access to what Windows users have had all along. And the flipping continues.
The latest round of iPlayer headaches comes under the guise of SWF verification, a form of DRM used by Adobe to prevent unauthorized use of streaming content. Until recently, iPlayer — which uses Adobe's Real Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) for streaming — did not utilize SWF verification, allowing non-Adobe media players to stream iPlayer content. This has given users the choice to avoid proprietary applications while still having access to BBC content — content paid for out of their pocket. (Because it is paid for by a public tax, iPlayer content is only available to viewers in the UK.)
As of the 18th, however, that is no more. The developers of XBMC, an Open Source media player, appear to have been the first to uncover the BBC's activation of SWF, which was reported via the project's bug tracker the following day. XBMC relies on the LGPL-licensed librtmp library for RTMP streaming, which does not implement SWF verification due to legal concerns. (Well-founded concerns, it would seem, given that Adobe has used the Digital Millennium Copyright Act against at least one RTMP-related project in the past.) As a result of the change, XBMC users — and any other non-SWF implementation of RTMP — have been shut out of the BBC's stash.
A post to the XBMC blog on Thursday expressed the projects disappointment with the decision, saying "While we understand the BBC’s reasoning for the decision, we surely don’t agree with it." The post went on to note the DMCA issues involved, and encouraging users to make their opinions known. A discussion of some form appears to be in the works, as evidenced by Twitter postings between XBMC and bbcbackstage, the BBC's early-adopter network.
iPlayer content continues to be available on all platforms with Adobe support, both through site-based streaming and the service's iPlayer Desktop, a cross-platform Adobe AIR application. Those adverse to Adobe's proprietary nature, as well as those on platforms unsupported by Adobe, will unfortunately remain out in the cold.
In what may turn out to be a happy coincidence, the BBC Trust is conducting a review of the service's on-demand offerings, which it agreed to do after twenty-four months when the new services were first approved in 2007. (That thirty-five months will have elapsed when the review concludes seems to have been overlooked.) As part of the review, the Trust is soliciting public comment, and if the current publicity is any indication, they can expect quite a lot of it.
Justin Ryan is a Contributing Editor for Linux Journal.