Last Chance to Save BBC from DRM


Six months ago, I wrote about a shabby attempt to slip through a major change at the BBC that would entail adding DRM to its HDTV output. Thanks in no small part of the prompt letter-writing of Computerworld UK readers, Ofcom extended the consultation period on this; subsequently, it also held meetings with the Open Rights Group, which I attended.

Despite all those representations, the BBC is still hell-bent on throwing over decades of public broadcasting and becoming in thrall to commercial interests through ineffective DRM:

The BBC want an offshore consortium of entertainment companies called the "Digital Transmission Licensing Administrator" to decide how your high definition TV and video can work.

The American courts rejected these draconian restrictions, so the DTLA has chosen to pick on British TV viewers instead.

Some rights-holders have threatened the BBC, demanding the power to control what you can record, how long you can keep your recordings, and how you can use them  They say they will stop supplying HD shows if the BBC doesn't agree.

But these are empty threats. The UK market is too lucrative to be ignored, and the same rights-holders still sell to huge DRM-free TV networks in the USA. But the BBC has decided to cave into these threats and wants to put DRM on your next TV set.

The BBC want to do this by scrambling some of the data that goes with the signal, including the information used by people with hearing and visual disabilities, as well as some of the video-decoding info. Devices will only be allowed to de-scramble this information by agreeing to apply this entertainment consortium's restrictions, such as deleting your recordings after a certain number of days, or preventing you from recording certain movies in HD quality.

This is bad for all sorts of reasons, perhaps the most compelling of which for the purposes of this blog is the fact that free software will be locked out. The threat is so serious, even the Linux Foundation has added its voice by submitting its own extensive comments:

The Linux Foundation, on behalf of its members, would like to register its serious objections to the current BBC/OFCOM proposal, which would impose content management controls on new free-to-air high definition channels. The plan, which involves restrictively licensing the Huffman codes used in the electronic programme guide, would have a negative effect on open source applications and would distort the markets which have built up around those applications.

There are two main ways to respond to this proposal, and both must be in by tomorrow evening. The first is an “online consultation response form”; however, this is one of the most biased examples it has ever been my misfortune to encounter. For example:

Question 1: Do you agree that copy management would broaden the range of HD content available on DTT and help secure its long term viability as a platform?

This leading question (and they are all phrased thus) pretty much indicates that Ofcom has made up its mind about the issue, and is simply going through the motions of consultation. Note, too, the euphemism “copy management”, when what we are talking about here is DRM, plain and simple: even Ofcom is aware that trying to espouse the benefits of DRM is a lost cause.

Despite (or maybe because of) this attempt to railroad people, I've submitted the following brief email to [email protected] If you have time, perhaps you could add your voice, too.

This email is in response to the HD Freeview platform consultation. All my comments may be published without restriction immediately.

My name is Glyn Moody, and I am writing as a UK television licence fee payer, and as a technology journalist who has been writing about DRM, open standards and open source software for 15 years.

As I noted in my previous submission to you, using DRM (euphemistically termed “copy management”) to lock down look-up tables is not compatible with the BBC's role as a public broadcaster. Employing DRM would undermine the argument for continued funding through a television licence – something that is hardly in the BBC's interest. As someone who has paid a TV licence fee for many decades, I find this proposed move a betrayal of all that the BBC has achieved and stands for.

The argument that producers will not supply content in the absence of DRM has been shown to be false in the US, when precisely the same argument was used, and precisely the same threat made. When that bluff was called, nothing happened.

In any case, bringing in DRM is pointless: circumventing this approach is trivially easy. But what it does mean is that the BBC will be beholden to content producers, many of whom are located overseas, and have no interest in supporting a thriving local media industry. If Ofcom approves this proposal, it will be weakening indigenous production.

Finally, the move is also anti-competitive, because DRM will lock out solutions based on open source code, the most vibrant part of the software industry, and one in which Europe excels. Again, the proposed move will weaken local industries and hand over effective control to foreign companies.

I would also like to register my dismay at the way the online consultation response form has been worded: practically every question pre-supposes that the proposed DRM solution is acceptable. This alone suggests that Ofcom is not serious in its call for comments, and that it has already made up its mind to approve the BBC's misguided plans. At the very least, the questions should have been worded in a neutral fashion.

The fact that Ofcom is insisting that all emailed responses be “in Microsoft Word format”, evidently unaware of open ISO standards like ODF, merely confirms its lack of understanding of what openness means, and why it is important in today's digital world.

All-in-all, this whole saga reflects very poorly both on the BBC and on Ofcom.

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