BBC iPlayer - why DRM?

Posted on 29 October 2007 in BBC, Internet (8 comments)

Ever since the BBC's iPlayer's TV programme download service launched in beta format a few months ago, its use of digital rights management has been a hot topic across various parts of the internet for all sorts of reasons.

There's been accusations bandied around left, right and centre. That the BBC has fallen in with the devil (aka Microsoft), that Microsoft have infiltrated the BBC through former staff members like Erik Huggers (who is the bloke in overall charge of the iPlayer team, but it must be said, was certainly not involved with putting DRM into the iPlayer, because he was still working for Microsoft at the time - a recent example appeared on Groklaw)

Then there's the one about the BBC falling hook line and sinker for Microsoft's claim that DRM prevents piracy.

That particular one I've seen an increasing amount recently - both on the net, and indeed on the BBC's own message boards) and it's easy to see why. DRM has been used to "prevent" piracy (yes, we all know you can strip the DRM off a file, so it doesn't prevent piracy, yada yada) - just think of all those CDs that are difficult to even play on a computer, yet alone copy them. In the BBC's case, it's something that's just not true. And rebutting that is why I started writing this post. In the end it turned out to be a more of an overview on why DRM ended up being built into the iPlayer downloads.

Incidentally, before I go on, let me give you the standard disclaimer that this is a personal post, and whilst it is based on some information I've received at work, it is also information that completely public knowledge. It's not widely known public knowledge, which is part of the reason I'm writing this - help spread the world a little. Given the readership of this site, it will only be a little. But given how many people have posted on this stuff - sometimes with foam coming out of their mouth at the same time - I decided to try and put a slightly different slant on the matter.

Now obviously (for those that know me), I'm not a member of the PC iPlayer team. I'm not a member of any iPlayer team. I have seen a copy of the Cable iPlayer whilst it was being built, but that's as close as I get.

I will however admit to being completely and utterly biased on the matter. That's cos I'm a Linux user, and because of the iPlayer downloads require Windows DRM, I'm a Linux user who is infuriatingly not able to use the iPlayer download function at home. (Here's looking forward to the streamed version which will...) As a Linux user, this whole thing annoys the hell out of me. I want to be able to download stuff like Windows XP users can. DRM is an annoying thing that I don't want in my life.

However I've had to put a pragmatic hat on, and listen to the arguments. And it's by listening that I've pieced together the reasons WHY all this has to be. At least, for now. It's a discussion that isn't really heard very much.

I'll also add that this is a rather simplified view on the matter - there's even more detail, more complications than I can tackle here. But hopefully this will go through the main issues...

Right. Now that's done, lets get on with it. Now where was I? Oh yes, iPlayer downloads do not use DRM for any reason about piracy.


So why use it then?

To understand this reasons why it's there, you have to understand the way the programmes you watch, get to the TV screen.

There's three basic types of programmes the BBC has:

  • programmes made by the BBC
  • programmes made for the BBC by an independent production company (informally known as indies)
  • programmes bought by the BBC but made by/for another broadcaster (usually imported programmes like Hereos)

There's more to it than that, but that's the basics.

Many (maybe even most?) programmes in the third category won't even appear in the iPlayer due to rights issues. So lets ignore them.

That just leaves programmes made by indies, and programmes made by Auntie herself.

The indies

The BBC has a legal requirement to get at least 25% of its output from independent production companies. Whilst the programmes are made for the BBC, they're not owned by the BBC - bar a few exceptions the copyright remains with the production company. Programmes are also sold with a "window" of usage where the BBC can make use of the programmes a certain number of times, or within a certain time period. And part of that, is making it available for you and I to download onto our PCs - thanks to quite a huge amount of negotiating on the BBC's behalf.

After that window has closed, the Indie is free to exploit the programme they made commercially. They could resell it onto one of the digital channels, or flog DVDs. They could also sell it to download online.

It's perfectly possible that the makers of, say, Ready Steady Cook (which is made by Cheetah Television, which is part of the huge Endemol) to decide that they want to sell episodes of Ready Steady Cook some months - maybe years - after broadcast.

Now we all know that some programmes are going to have a limited resale value. But others have a huge potential for extra cash. What’s potentially going to get in the way of making that money? The availability of copies being downloaded in a free window, and then being available for ever.

Hence the DRM. If you lock it off so that the file you download from the BBC expires after 30 days, the view is that indies have a greater chance for you to sell it to you again for some cash. Or perhaps flog you a DVD instead.

Hey, we've paid for this stuff! Why should they be allowed to sell it on again?

Now I know very well what some of you will be thinking at this stage. Why does the BBC allow independent companies to exploit these programmes commercially? After all, haven't we, the licence fee payer, funded this stuff in the first place? It should be ours to do with what we see fit!

Ah well here's the catch. Broadcasters - and it's not just the BBC here - have rarely funded programmes in such a way that the broadcaster gets full rights to do with a programme what they want. There's a reason for that. Cost.

It's cheaper to buy the rights to show a programme within a six month time frame, than it is to buy the rights to show a programme over a twenty year time frame. Much cheaper. So the broadcaster essentially rents a programme for a specific time period.

In theory, yes the broadcaster could rent the programme indefinitely. And for some, this is probably cheap and worthwhile doing. However across the board, the costs are liable to be astronomical, meaning you the viewer would get far less bang for your buck. And if you as a broadcaster are only planning on showing this programme say 1 or 2 (or for a digital 10 or 20!) times max, it's probably not worth it. Meaning that you can't download and do what you want with the content you've "paid" for. Because to be blunt, you haven't.

The BBC excuse

Now that's the indies excuse, I hear you cry, what about the BBC's? Surely it can do what it wants with the content it makes?

If only. Cos there's lots of rights. The author/actor/producer might have a deal whereby they get paid every time the programme is broadcast, rather than a flat rate. There's music issues, there's archive footage issues. And more.

Oh and then there's BBC Worldwide. They are tasked with making the BBC money so that your licence fee doesn't get too high. And guess what? They want to flog stuff online too!

There's gold in them there hills

And so it stacks up. There's lots of people who think that there is money to be made. Not that it's pure profit by any means. Quite often BBC Worldwide will co-fund BBC productions with an eye on the commercial opportunities later on - and no doubt some indies do the same. Put a bit extra money in, to aid making extra money down the line. If you're pretty confident that your sitcom will do well in DVD sales, that your cookery show will flog a few books, then you can afford to spend more money on your programme (or even charge the BBC less!) in order to make it do even better.

When there's money to be made, what you don't want is something getting in the way of that money. And you keeping that free copy of the programme that you downloaded from the iPlayer, gets in the way of them making that money - or at least that's how some people see it.

That's how people have always seen it. Home taping is killing music etc. If every user had bought official Red Dwarf VHS tapes instead of recording it off the telly like I did, just think how much money BBC Worldwide would have made. Of course in the end I bought the DVDs so they got it eventually. Just as some people who downloaded music from (the original version of) Napster went out and bought the CDs after.

And it may be that people who download programmes from the iPlayer and keep them for years, do go out and buy DVDs etc, or spend money in some other way. That no one has lost anything. But that's not been proved, and if you're a business with your eye on your profits, well you're going to be thinking about such things.

Of course this is all a rather simplified representation of the world - there's a lot more going on behind the scenes which make this an even further complicated issue. But that's the bare bones about it.

But DRM can be removed!

Now we've been through all that, there's that other burning thing you're thinking. But DRM can be removed. Of course it can. We all know it's possible to strip it off. The BBC knows it. Everyone knows it.

So why use it? Because most people - the people sat at home using this stuff - don't know how to strip DRM, or they don't care about stripping the DRM because they get what they want anyway. Finding the DRM strippers isn't hugely easy anyway (in an idle ten minutes, I had a hunt round Google and found a huge number of broken links to DRM stripping software, and never one that actually worked). In essence, the DRM is "good enough". True you can get round it, but it's not something most people will do.

And in the future?

Now the ultimate question - can DRM ever be removed from the iPlayer then? Well maybe. It's going to need those important question to be answered - does removing the time restrictions on those downloads prevent commercial selling this stuff in the future? Do the people who are making money now, still make that money? Can they still say in business.

Now you can argue this is obvious - just look at EMI who have embraced DRM free downloads for their music. That's fine. But that's music and they're charging. We're talking TV and not charging. It's different business models and its different people involved. EMI make you pay for their music - that's the business model. These are people who have to find their own way of doing things - they have to find their own answers.

It's not so long ago - around three years - that the only video you got on the BBC website was 30 second promotional clips. We've gone a long way - full TV programmes available on demand. And the UK is the country that is absolutely pioneering this stuff - name me another country where four of the five main broadcasters have the option of watching almost all their programmes online for free for a certain time? We're at the forefront of this stuff and not for the first time. The world is watching what this country does. And they will learn from us. But that means we have to learn by ourselves, cos there's no one else to really learn from.

The Third Way

Of course there may be another way. The BBC's Director of Future Media and Technology (and co-incidentally of course, my boss!) Ashley Highfield has spoken of companies out there who are looking at wrappers round content - where the content knows that it's not in the free window, so maybe you get an advert in there; or maybe it's a matter of knowing it's on YouTube so cut it down to a shorter length. Who knows what technology and business will come up with to find a good solution to this issue. People will look. But we're not going to get there for a while.

Whatever happens, it's a journey of discovery for us all. We all know what we’d like to have - we just have to persuade others that getting there won't bring doom and gloom for them. We shouldn't stop demanding - because if we don't demand, we'll never get there - however we have to all understand properly why things are the way they are. And I'm afraid we have to accept that what we all want, isn't going to happen overnight.

Chances of everyone doing that? Probably slim! But if you've read this far - and yes, this is the end of this post - hopefully you might understand it a bit better. If you'd like to have your say on it, do email me. Ditto if you think I've made any glaringly obvious mistakes (like I say, I'm not an expert - I've pieced this post together from the stuff I've read about from all manner of sources - BBC briefings, Broadcast, podcasts and so on) If I get some interesting points, I'll bung up a response post up. This is one of those times I wish I'd sorted out the comments properly, cos it would be much easier.

And now in the spirit of DRM, you have ten more days to read this post, before you have to pay to read it again. How does £10.50 per paragraph sound to you?

In the course of writing this post - which took me nearly a week alas - published a podcast with Ashley Highfield talking about the iPlayer covering some, if not all of this stuff from his perspective. As I based/pilfered some parts of this post on what he's said in various briefings, some of the podcast might be a little familiar. Have a listen and make your own mind up. I'd also recommend listening to an earlier podcast which also tackles this thorny subject - from all sides.

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Your Comments

Keith Benbow said:

iPlayer and DRM - What is the difference between that and recording a programme to DVD either on a domestic recorder or on the computer fitted with a TV tuner ?

Posted on 22 February 2008 at 8:08 PM

Andrew Bowden said:

Speaking on a purely personal viewpoint... for me, one difference is that there's no easy way to stop you distributing copies you've recorded onto DVD or via a PC/TV tuner combo.

Another is that so far, fewer people put such copies online but keep them for personal use. So far anyway...

Posted on 23 February 2008 at 12:53 PM

Sandy said:

My brother lives in Spain, where TV programming is pretty dire, relative to the UK. iPlayer and their other chanel ilk would be ideal for him. But they're not available outside the UK. Ex-pats living abroad would be willing to pay for such services, I'm sure.

I spend many an hour recording stuff for him via my TV card in my PC and he's an avid YouTube user too. It'd save me a lot of hassle, for sure, if I could just get the files from iPlayer for him, or, of course, if the service was available to him.

Does anyone know of any such plans?

Posted on 20 March 2008 at 11:30 AM

Andrew Bowden said:

Apparently BBC Worldwide do have plans for an international, commercial version of iPlayer, which would obviously be of interest to your brother.

However I don't know when it will be available, how it will work and what programmes will be on it.

Posted on 20 March 2008 at 11:47 AM

Dan said:

Well, if your brother's really prepared to pay for the content, there's always bbc prime. You need a satellite dish, set-top box and a subscription card. Some local satellite/cable providers might also offer it as part of their subscription packages.

Posted on 4 August 2008 at 7:13 PM

Killem said:

so, what your sayin is the BBC is just a platform for advertisin programmes that will be available to buy at a later date?

Posted on 5 October 2008 at 7:32 PM

jim said:

I'm an old-fashioned guy who can't figure out how to do computer tricks like stripping DRM from iplayer. So I stick my camera in front of the screen and make a beautiful copy of any programme I want - mine then, to do as I please.

Posted on 22 October 2008 at 8:36 PM

Mike said:

If you want to watch BBC iplayer from overseas get hide my ip and use the premium proxy service. It basically pretends your computer is in the uk and you can watch download and watch what ever you want. it's only abou 5 quid a month

Posted on 8 December 2008 at 8:27 PM

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