BBC exec's straw-man defence of DRM

Ashley Highfield, the BBC's Director Future Media & Technology, has done an interview with the BBC Backstage podcast about the BBC's new DRM-based net-delivery system, iPlayer, which delivers a slim fraction of the functionality available to people who watch their TV over the air.

Highfield defends the company's DRM in an incoherent way, attacking straw-men ("The rightsholders need DRM to protect their rights" and "we need open source DRM, but that may be a contradiction in terms," "Rightsholders are scary," "We need a fictional technology that will let us insert ads but only when American eyeballs are present") but without addressing the really meaty questions.

The BBC broadcasts the entirety of its programming at the speed of light, in digital form, without DRM, to every corner of the UK. The net is flooded with every single show the BBC transmits. The BBC has previously stood up to rightsholders who insisted DRM (removing DRM from its satellite feeds, despite an entertainment industry boycott that lasted a year). Adding DRM to its downloads just makes the downloads suck, traps Britons into using Microsoft OSes, shuts out one in four license-paying households who don't have the right combination, bans open source -- but it has nothing to do with stopping infringing downloads.

What's more, the fictional technology Highfield cites as a prerequisite for dropping DRM is wildly improbable. It would require every single entity in the video "value chain" -- every player, every hosting site, every hardware company -- to sign on to always follow the BBC's "insert ad here" instruction, and the only way to force them to do that add DRM.

When asked about the iPlayer's P2P system (which you can't switch off, meaning that once you download shows, they're available for other iPlayer users to download from you), Highfield says that the ISPs have sold "unlimited" broadband to their customers without expecting us to actually use the service without limits. They have a dishonest pitch for their technology, and Highfield essentially says, "Well, that's their problem."

I couldn't agree more -- and what's more, there's another group of companies that have made a dishonest pitch for technology: the rightsholders who say that DRM on the BBC's downloads will stop unauthorized distribution of their videos.

I like Highfield -- I know him personally and think he's smarter than this. I'd love to see him interviewed by someone who actually walked him through the real implications of what he's proposing here. Link, Link to Ben Laurie's rebuttal (Thanks, Glyn!)

See also:
BBC announces that it may NOT deliver Linux/Mac/older Windows version of iPlayer -- sorry, 25% of UK, no iPlayer for you!
Cory's column on DRM's Potemkin Village for the Guardian
BBC Trustees agree to let BBC infect Britain with DRM
BBC's online media now requires MSFT player, DRM
BBC picketed over use of Microsoft DRM
BBC recruits Microsoft DRM exec
Regulators order BBC Trust to meet with open source consortium over DRM player


  1. Like everyone else with a brain, I’m left infuriated by the same old BS spoken with the same reasonable ‘you have to understand’ voice.

    No, it still doesn’t make any real world sense. I still do not accept that I am not allowed access to programming that I have already damned well paid for purely because I will not use Windows.

    What I would really like a lot would be for someone – perhaps Highfield? – to attempt to explain to those very Rights Holders that they are actively encouraging less-than-legal filesharing by adamantly refusing to use an ounce of common sense. And as we all know by now, once a person gets into the habit of an easy download, it’s very difficult to go back to the legal-but-pointlessly-frustrating model.

    Not only is it a all too easy to crank up bittorrent or usenet, it makes a lot more sense to do so.

    Besides which, if you can view it, you can record it. This fact alone renders DRM the biggest waste of time imaginable for a service that’s supposed to be freely available anyway.

    Let the monkeys dance. They may eventually trip over and wake up with some brain cells to rub together.

  2. I don’t see any straw men. If anything, there’s a red herring, but it’s rather confused. All he appears to be saying is that there is a conflict between open source and digital rights. That may be false, but where’s the invalid reasoning?

  3. The BBC is in a great position to stand up and show how DRM free video can work online. Because they are state funded the shows are already paid for by the license fees the Brits pay. This should entitle them to free downloads sans DRM. I’d love to see the BBC lead the way and prove to American studios that they don’t need DRM on their video downloads.

    The Windows Media DRM certainly isn’t preventing people from downloading recordings of TV shows and movies from other sources for free. All it does is make the officially sanctioned method of accessing the videos the worst consumer experience. The fact that is Windows only (and only some versions of Windows and Windows Media Player at that) stinks. “No Macs or Linux users need apply” is certainly unacceptable for the BBC and is bad business in general.

    The use of DRM here is silly – they’re giving away the videos for free. There are other ways to make money on this – ads on the download pages, ads in the video files, and simply increasing regular TV viewership of shows after people make up missed episodes – which is a big deal in shows with long running plot lines. And who cares if people share the shows with their friends – that will result in more fans of the shows and the higher ratings mean more ad dollars.

    One note – you can turn off the P2P client in the iPlayer. Their client is supplied by VeriSign (formerly Kontiki), just like the one I used in building AxiomTV (and yeah, we have the same DRM as the BBC – you have to in order to get content from major studios – we are selling movies instead of supplementing TV broadcasts) and in AOL’s In2TV. In the P2P client preferences you can set whether it starts up with Windows or not and you can disable sharing whenever you like. You can also kill the khost and kservice processes and disable them or set them only to start manually – through this may affect other sites that use the same P2P client software. It’s actually a pretty cool technology and can improve download times for people when the servers get slammed. Plus, it’s great to have legitimate uses of P2P to slam down the net neutrality opponents’ throats when they say that throttling back P2P traffic like Comcast did is okay since it’s all just pirated content.

  4. When asked about the iPlayer’s P2P system (which you can’t switch off, meaning that once you download shows, they’re available for other iPlayer users to download from you), Highfield says that the ISPs have sold “unlimited” broadband to their customers without expecting us to actually use the service without limits. They have a dishonest pitch for their technology, and Highfield essentially says, “Well, that’s their problem.”

    Every significant ISP in the UK peers with the BBC. That means that the BBC get gigabits per second of free access to those ISPs customers. It’s damn cheeky to turn around and insult those selfsame ISPs to excuse forcing a P2P system onto iPlayer users. The BBC might find some ISPs reviewing their peering policies in light of this and the BBC might have to start buying some transit from those ISPs instead.

  5. The BBC is going about this so arse backwards.

    Yes old content has shitty licensing provisos which don’t permit you to put it on p2p. So why keep signing into that kind of legal retardedness ? Future content should be generated or acquired under new terms.

    Any rights holders who expect ‘extortionate monetization’ to make their content apt for [re]broadcasting in perpetuity should peddle their populist evacuations elsewhere. Perhaps the ‘BBC Learning Zone’ will get some extra money this way.

    There is a good chance the beeb have missed the plane anyways; tbp, fti and mn are all miles ahead .

  6. attacking straw-men … without addressing the really meaty questions.

    What a surprise … just like most of the Beeb’s programming.

    Actually, being American, I only really understood how the Beeb managed it after seeing “Brazil”. All stood revealed.

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