Save the BBC from Windows DRM! - Update

by Glyn Moody

The BBC has a long and glorious past as a technological innovator. Throughout the history of broadcasting, it has often been the first to develop and promote new technologies. Sadly, it seems now to be teetering on the brink of making technical choices that will not only damage its own reputation as a world-class institution, but which will also have serious knock-on consequences for free software.

As the worlds of computing and media began increasingly to overlap, it was inevitable that the BBC would need to make decisions about which formats and licensing schemes it would adopt for digital versions of its content that were delivered over the Internet.

To begin with, it offered RealMedia streams for its Audio on Demand service, which meant that GNU/Linux users were on an equal footing with those running Windows. Even more promising was the BBC's participation in the Creative Archive project. This was set up in April 2005 by the BBC and several other major UK institutions to make archive video and audio material available under the Creative Archive licence, which was based on the Creative Commons licences. As well as offering liberal licensing terms, the Creative Archive also chose to release the material in a variety of formats - Quicktime, Windows Media and MPEG1 - to promote the widest possible use.

Against this background, then, the hopes were obviously high that the BBC's latest foray into Internet broadcasting, its on-demand service that would allow people to download television and radio programmes after they were broadcast, would continue this even-handed approach and support all computer platforms.

But the current recommendations contain a real shocker, a consequence of the fact that the BBC has decided to use DRM in its new iPlayer software to control how on-demand material is viewed. That's bad enough, if understandable given the hideously complicated situation concerning the rights to the material that the BBC wants to make available. But worse is how it has decided to implement this approach. As the report explains:

the files would require DRM to ensure that they were appropriately restricted in terms of time and geographic consumption. The only system that currently provides this security is Windows Media 10 and above. Further, the only comprehensively deployed operating system that currently supports Windows Media Player 10 and above is the Windows XP operating system. As a result of these DRM requirements the proposed BBC iPlayer download manager element therefore requires Windows Media Player 10 and Windows XP.

Only those running Windows XP (or Vista) and Windows Media Player 10 will be able to access the BBC's proposed on-demand service. Users of GNU/Linux (and the Apple Macintosh for that matter) are to be cast into the outer darkness. That's around 25% of the potential audience according to this BBC podcast, which contains a fascinating discussion of many of the key issues around this decision. From this it also emerges that the reason that the BBC felt obliged to take this route was because “doing something is better than doing nothing