Britons: Your BBC could sell you out with DRM.

It looks like the BBC is gearing up to distribute their work with DRM using a player that only runs on Microsoft Windows. Cory Doctorow on has more.

If you pay for the BBC or if you want to see how viewer-funded public television can turn on the audience it is supposed to serve, check out what the BBC is up to and help them avoid giving in to digital restrictions management (DRM). Doctorow’s post is, like all the posts at, licensed under the Creative Commons By-NonCommercial license. The BBC recording comes courtesy of, under the Creative Commons attribution license.

If you pay for BBC programming, they’ll probably listen to you. You can help make the BBC the beacon of DRM-free, platform-agnostic programming it can be.

BBC techies talk DRM

Glyn sez, The first ever BBC Backstage podcast kicked off in fine style talking about the BBC and its position on DRM and copyright. You can download and remix the MPeg3 file or the Ogg Vorbis file. Both are licensed under creative commons attribution. So as long as you credit, [you're] good to go. In the next few days the BBC will make available a broadcast quality audio file and a video file for those who want to see the debate in action.

The podcast is both heartening and frustrating. The BBC had so much promise a few years ago, back when it was talking about delivering real, world-class public value to license payers by doing the hard work of clearing the footage in the archive and letting the public remix it. Now that vision has been reduced to a sham — the BBC iPlayer, a steaming pile of DRM that restricts you to being a mere consumer of BBC programming, downloading it to your PC for a mere seven days.

For a minute there, the BBC seemed like it would enable a creative nation. Now it’s joining the jerks in Hollywood who think that media exists to be passively swallowed by a legion of glassy eyed zombie audience members.

You can hear the disappointment in the visionaries at the BBC, the betrayal at being sold out by management. The BBC is forcing Britons to buy an American operating system — Windows — in order to watch British programming, made in Britain. The free and open GNU/Linux — whose kernel is maintained in Britain — can’t be used for British TV, because of DRM.

The BBC claims it will find an “open standard” for DRM, but of course such a thing is totally, utterly, categorically impossible.

An open standard is one that anyone can implement. Anyone can improve on it, innovate on it, add features to it. The whole point of DRM is that it has to be implemented in a very specific way, to cripple certain features that users otherwise want. All DRMs have “Hook IP” — something you have to license in order to implement them. A condition of the license is inevitably that you can’t make the product user-modifiable. That means that it can’t be open. It can only be implemented in crippled, restricted form.

The BBC claims that it can’t clear its archives, but that is only to say that it can’t do this without legislative assistance. One way to achieve that is to prospectively clear everything in its production pipeline, something that could have been done five years ago — and that evidently isn’t happening now.

The fact is that Britons are already downloading tons of TV from UKNova and elsewhere. They’re risking criminal and civil penalties to get access to the programming that they are required to fund, that is being made on their behalf.

We’ve trained people to watch TV. You can’t turn around after 70 years and say, you have to stop using the best new technology to get the best TV experience. The point of the BBC is to create compelling programming that educates, informs and entertains. At the end of the day, it’s the same shows. Why should how you watch it make a difference?

The BBC exists to win this kind of fight in Britain. They exist to go where the private sector won’t. For the BBC to throw its hands up and say, “We can’t win this fight, we surrender, here we are, DRM forever, go buy some Microsoft,” is nothing short of a betrayal. The BBC is dooming the Brits who fund it to being criminals. It’s a bloody shame.

Update (2007-03-05): More analysis on the BBC’s announced plans from David Woodhouse.

Other problems with the recorded discussion follow:

  • Creative Commons licenses vary wildly—there are multiple CC licenses and they all work differently. One of the major complaints against the Creative Commons organization is that they promote their brand which leads people to believe that it makes sense to talk about a generic CC license as if there is some set of freedoms all CC licenses grant. Some CC licenses are fine, some should never be used at all. Their third-world license and sampling license, to name a couple examples, prohibit even verbatim non-commercial copying and distribution and therefore are unfit for any use whatsoever. Other CC licenses don’t have this problem and are quite suitable for widespread use.
  • The BBC used to broadcast in Ogg Vorbis. Ogg Vorbis has no digital restrictions, streams well over the Internet, and can be played in a number of portable hardware devices. In 2003 the BBC said “(2003-01-03): Sorry folks, but we simply do not have time right now to get the ogg streams running again. BBC work has to come first, and until we get more staff, we won’t be able to dedicate any time into getting the streams up.” and now they say “Unfortunately the BBC decided not to pursue development and testing of Ogg Vorbis streaming. There are currently no plans to resume this at a later date.”. So, the unencumbered audio feeds aren’t a priority item for the BBC. Given their recommendation for DRM here, I wouldn’t be surprised if a BBC signed a deal with Microsoft or RealNetworks to which includes dropping any Ogg Vorbis plans.
  • “ecosystem” in this context denies freedom—From the GNU project’s list of confusing words worth avoiding: “It is a mistake to describe our community (or any community) as an “ecosystem”, because that word implies the absence of (1) intension and (2) ethics. In an ecosystem, species evolve according to their fitness. If something is weak, it goes extinct, and that’s neither right nor wrong. The term “ecosystem” implicitly suggests a passive attitude: “Don’t ask how things should be, just watch what happens to them”.

    By contrast, beings that have ethical responsibility can decide to preserve something that, on its own, would tend to vanish — such as civil society, democracy, human rights, peace, public health, … or computer users’ freedom.”

  • DRM is not a substitute for degrading media—nor should there be such a substitute. Any talk of DRM functioning this way is a lame means of trying to get people to accept that media must degrade, making fully-functional periodic backups is unacceptable, and your rights should degrade too. Archivists know the value of preserving investment through periodic backups of unencumbered formats on modern media. Consumers are quickly learning the value of this to preserve their investment and their rights to deal in the work after the original media has become useless.
  • Don’t let people trick you into believing that your rights are tied to effort—as if a more troublesome copying system somehow bestows more right to copy. You ought to be able to make non-commercial verbatim copies of all published work as a default in any copyright system. And you ought to be able to preserve what you paid for, using it in any format you wish, at any time, anywhere you wish.