Tuesday, 4 September 2007

iPlayer: BBC on Macs, DRM, bandwidth, non-UK access

The BBC are clearly going into PR mode on their planned "iPlayer", which term in fact covers all sorts of things but is generally thought of as "7 day catchup TV" - i.e. downloading BBC programmes within 7 days after transmission (for more on iPlayer see my detailed iPlayer overview, so accurate that the Man from Auntie thought it was written by a BBC insider and banned my innocuous iPlayer videos from YouTube!).

Maybe it's just been put up, or maybe I missed it earlier, but I've just noticed that the main public iPlayer beta webpage has been updated with statements by the Beeb headed "Important issues regarding BBC iPlayer" on several controversial matters that have dogged iPlayer:
  • Platform neutrality - the compatibility (or rather not) of initial versions of iPlayer with Mac, Linux and Windows Vista computers - including some timelines for other platforms. Lots of people have lobbied about this.
  • DRM - the imposition of digital rights management (DRM) on downloaded video files, which tightly limits playing in terms of time, and also restricts copying - the BBC have even produced an interactive video about Digital Rights Management and Registration as part of their BBC Webwise Guide to Broadband, using a library loans analogy for downloaded videos - as in "borrowing" TV programs!
  • Bandwidth and broadband costs - the use of peer to peer filesharing methods for distributing iPlayer downloads, which means your computer can be used to help deliver downloads to other users, thus eating into your bandwidth allowance with your ISP. ISPs have been making noise about the increased costs. The BBC have produced yet another video, about P2P!
  • UK only - the restriction of access to iPlayer downloads only to computers which appear to originate in the UK i.e. have a UK IP address, via geo-IP technology. Not in fact hard to get round for non-UK users if you know how, but I say no more on that.

Whether you agree or disagree, whether you think the BBC's justifications are valid enough or not, is up to you - but I think it's interesting that there's clearly been enough fuss kicked up about all this that the BBC have felt it necessary to post up a "defence" of their position.

Platform neutrality (support for Mac, Linux etc) and digital rights management

I think platform support and DRM are related. Were there no "requirement" for DRM, it would be simple to offer downloadable files that could be played on any computer operating system, Mac, Linux, mobile phones and PDAs etc.

If - and that's the big if - it really really truly is impossible to offer BBC program downloads without DRM, then I have sympathy for "rollout on Windows first, then other platforms later", rather than wait till it's perfected on all platforms before making it available to anyone at all. Most software tends to be developed for one platform then extended to others gradually so to me the statistics make sense, most people are on Windows, as long as it's available on other platforms within a reasonable timescale I see no problem with providing a Windows version first. If DRM really is essential, as I said.

Is DRM essential? There's the rub. The owners of rights to many of the programmes shown on the BBC claim it is. Many, including me, would argue that the insistence on DRM is misguided. DRM is the worst of both worlds - it unnecessarily inconveniences ordinary consumers like you & me, without actually stopping organised crime from mass pirating all the films, movies and TV programmes that they like. It's really not that difficult for those with the resources and determination to pirate BBC programmes anyway. If we can video a programme with our VCR, keep and rewatch the video for as long as we like, and even lend the video to a friend, why can't we do the same with downloaded programmes?

There's another point here. The BBC don't own the rights to many of the programmes they show, but they do own the rights to many of the programmes they themselves make. They could have led the way here by offering non-DRM downloads of their own programmes. Also, they have huge bargaining power - why couldn't they have had the courage to use their clout to insist to the rights holders that iPlayer downloads must be without DRM? Their satellite feeds are unencrypted, for instance, so they were clearly able to get that through.

We shall see how this plays out, but I'm not optimistic. It's widely known that the BBC have had meetings with anti-DRM groups etc, but I fear it may be lip service, seeism and self-justification more than a genuine attempt to investigate the true merits and risks of non-DRM downloads.

Bandwidth and P2P

One issue here in terms of the ISPs is booking downloads in advance. This ability was present with the iPlayer's predecessor the BBC iMP (iMP key issues, tips and tricks, and initial views on iMP).

But it was taken away from iPlayer because the BBC Trust inexplicably agreed with the view of commercial broadcasters who, during the iPlayer consultation, claimed that, as the iPlayer request for approval from the BBC executive did not explicitly spell out advance booking of downloads, it should not be allowed as part of the approval. Well the formal request didn't spell out the provision of subtitles either, why didn't the Trust ban that too?

It's disingenuous and obviously self-serving for commercial broadcasters, who would probably like to scupper iPlayer and reduce competition for their own services, to try to kill a feature which would have enabled the ISPs to work out in advance where the peaks would be, and to balance out the load on their servers. And the ISPs, I speculate, would have been less likely to cause a stink about bandwidth and costs if there had been a bookings feature. I hope the Trust will reconsider and permit bookings ASAP. (I also disagree totally with their decision to ban non-DRM audio downloads of classical music and full book readings. But that's another matter.)

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