BBC drops DRM from iPlayer video on demand service

The BBC appears to have inadvertently (?) removed the controversial DRM from its iPlayer video-on-demand service. Now, all BBC programmes are broadcast across the country in digital form without DRM, literally diffused at the speed of light in all directions without any restrictions, but the Beeb somehow believes that there's a new risk of piracy created by letting those same digital files out on the net.

Glyn sez, "The BBC have just launched a version of their iPlayer that works with the iPhone (and iPod Touch). Instead of streaming Flash, it streams an MP4... but they don't let non-iPhone users know it's an option. To gain access to it you need to set your browser up to claim to be a iPhone. The User Agent Switcher plugin on Firefox will let you do just that. Now you can download files on Linux from the iPlayer website." Link (Thanks, Glyn!)


  1. literally diffused at the speed of light in all directions without any restrictions.

    Proof pls.

  2. Mr Wednesday — I invite you to prove this for yourself by visiting one of this country’s many fine high-powered, omnidirectional broadcast towers. You can also verify this by pointing a satellite dish at the sky, whence the BBC’s unencrypted signal emanates.

  3. You’re forgetting about TV licensing.

    Yes, TV signals are indeed broadcast all across Britain for anyone to receive.

    However, watch what happens if you put a TV Aerial on your house without paying the license fees.

    Unlike American terrestrial TV, however, the BBC is funded entirely through license fees, and does not run advertising.

    Watching the BBC via iPlayer outside of the UK is piracy, plain and simple.

  4. There is no way this is intentional.

    People who use DRM are, in general, idiots when it comes to technology, otherwise they would no be using DRM in the first place!

    Think about all of the laughably stupid anti-user DRM schemes we have seen in the last few years.

    There was an e-book reader software that printed your full credit card info on each page, that was supposed to discourage you from sharing it, there was the trainwreck known as SDMI.
    My friend who worked at Radio Shack back in 2003 told me that they couldn’t pay people to buy an SDMI player.
    Once people found out that they had to spend an hour encrypting their CD just to put it onto the player they returned it.

    In the minds of the people who set this up, obfuscating the location of the stream url is the same as encrypting it.
    And playing that video stream in VLC instead of the iPhone makes you a cyber terrorist and a criminal.

    DRM is a pyramid scheme, with the content producers screwing the consumer, and the content producers in turn getting screwed by DRM vendors.

  5. Hey, that’s my PC you’re looking at a screenshot of! =)

    I had no idea that, whilst I messed about with this at the end of a long day at work, I’d be opening the Pandora’s Box. This came about after a friend and I came to a standstill pulling the Flash streams out (thanks to the non-standard protocol that Adobe/Macromedia employ). The moment I saw that there was an iPhone version, the following thoughts went through my head:

    * the iPhone doesn’t have Flash
    * the iPhone can play MP4 files
    * virtually anything can play MP4 files

    It’s worth noting that there has to be a ‘token’ added to the URL of the files that are streamed, so that you can’t just get the files without getting authenticated. This ties to your PC, I imagine through IP address (because the same token worked on different browsers, so a cookie it ain’t). But that’s the sum of the protection.

    The quality is good – better than the Flash stream and better than some of the Kontiki-distributed DRM-laden WMV files that I, erm, liberated. Sadly, at present, we’ve not managed to stream these mp4 files – we have to save them to disc before viewing. Trauma. =)

  6. Can someone please explain for me why we’ve suffered through Real, WMV, and now Flash, when MPEG-4 has been around and compatible with every media player all along? Why does it take the premise of an iPod or an iPhone to get a simple universally compatible .mp4 online via good ol’ HTTP?!

    Watching the BBC via iPlayer outside of the UK is piracy, plain and simple.

    Shit! Someone had better tell all the television stations that rebroadcast BBC World!

    Also, neverminding the opportunity cost that most people watching the BBC outside the UK would never ever have paid for BBC programming anyway!

    But what I’m sick of is when programs such as Taxi to the Dark Side are aired on BBC (Why Democracy? series), and then a year later it shows in cinemas in the States and people get all excited then. Same with Why We Fight, The Corporation (ok, that was the CBC), and so on. How much longer until content producers realize that market segmentation doesn’t work!

  7. ok, I concede the via iPlayer qualifier.

    However, I never ceased to be surprised by the irrational disgust people have for so-called “free riders”. If a group of people pay to produce a show but the end result is that anyone can watch it for free once the show is already made, why should you be unhappy?! You were willing to contribute to make the show exist, and it did! Why do you care at all what other people do or don’t?!

    I suspect this is actually more of a rhetorical question in the field of behavioral finance, but I still find it surprising.

  8. Well done, you spotted a plain text URL in an HTML document… you do realise that the signals that come through the air can give you this exact same content? Possibly a bit technical for “bloggers”…

  9. Sorry for the multiple posts, but I found that I’m referring specifically to inequality aversion.

    Fehr and Schmidt showed that disadvantageous IA manifests itself in humans as the “willingness to sacrifice potential gain to block another individual from receiving a superior reward”. They argue that this, apparently self-destructive, response is essential in creating an environment in which bilateral bargaining can thrive. Without IA’s rejection of injustice, stable co-operation would be harder to maintain (for instance, there would be more opportunities for successful free riders).

    An experiment on capuchin monkeys showed that the subjects would prefer receiving nothing to receiving a reward awarded inequitably in favor of a second monkey, and appeared to target their anger at the researchers responsible for the inequitable distribution of food. Anthropologists suggest that this research indicates a biological and evolutionary sense of social “fair play” in primates, though others believe that this is learned behaviour. Aside from humans and brown capuchins, there is evidence for inequity aversion in chimpanzees. Animal cognition studies in other biological orders have not found similar importance on relative ‘equity’ and ‘justice’ as opposed to absolute utility.

  10. Two more brief questions:

    1.) Are any James Burke specials on iPlayer yet?

    2.) Where are all the proxies and VPNs forwarding BBC content from the UK to anywhere in the world. Basically this is a job for Squid cache or Dijjer, right?

  11. @ zuzu

    “You were willing to contribute to make the show exist, and it did! Why do you care at all what other people do or don’t?!”

    Well you’ve got me there, I assume you let other people use your car once you’re done with it too? Cos once you’ve paid for it to exist, why should you care what other people do with it? And that band you’re in, they couldn’t care less if they sold one ticket for their gig, and then it was then copied 1,000 times, right?

    “Someone had better tell all the television stations that rebroadcast BBC World!”

    Yeah, they do that for free, you know. There’s no pesky licensing or contracts and stuff involved at all.

  12. I assume you let other people use your car once you’re done with it too? Cos once you’ve paid for it to exist, why should you care what other people do with it? And that band you’re in, they couldn’t care less if they sold one ticket for their gig, and then it was then copied 1,000 times, right?

    You are conflating copyright with property law. Either you’re purposefully being obtuse or you’re the victim of the linguistic framing of so-called “intellectual property”.

    Physical property, such as a car or seating at a venue is constrained by scarcity. Information reproduces (as copies) when more people use it; more copies means less scarcity.

    If I had a magic machine that could copy my car so you could use its duplicate, I’d certainly do nothing to stop you from doing so. This is also why in property law, “theft” is defined not by possession but “denial of use”. You only commit theft if your absconding with my television prevents me from using it, not simply because you have taken it. Again, if you used the magic machine to clone my television, theft has not occurred — which is why “theft” is an absolutely ridiculous word to apply to acts of copyright infringement, except to purposefully misdirect and mislead the issue at hand.

    It would be curious then, if an idea, the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain, could, of natural right, be claimed in exclusive and stable property. If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

    — Thomas Jefferson

  13. On the subject of paying: Why can’t the BBC just offer an international license subscription?

    I know it’s not exactly cheap but there may just be a market for it. Better than “either you don’t watch it or you’re a pirate,” right?

  14. @zuzu “Shit! Someone had better tell all the television stations that rebroadcast BBC World!”

    BBC World is a commercial channel intended to be broadcast around the world. I pay $5.95 per month to get it via Real Networks. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be an alternative streaming source for it in the US. LiveStation beta carries it in other parts of the world but not in the US :-(

  15. Even if you switch your user agent you need to be within the UK in order to download. Unless you spoof your IP.

  16. I noticed this yesterday. It has to be intentional, the iPlayer doesn’t support any DRM except FairPlay which Apple won’t license. The BBC have fairly heavily promoted the iPlayer for the iPhone and clearly invested quite a bit of hardware time in the encoding of 400 hours of TV a day for the iPhone. It’s unlikely that they accidentally forgot that they don’t have any DRM on the video files and perhaps think that the gain of having it on the iPhone is offset by the risk of having fairly low quality rips of their programs out there.

    Of course, the people they have to satisfy are the media creators and they have to show that they’ve done everything reasonable to prevent the content getting out. It’ll depend if they consider a user agent check ‘everything reasonable’ or not. It’s not as if you can’t rip the DRM from the WMV files (which are higher quality).

    We’ll see if the beta gets pulled on Monday morning, I was hoping nobody would publicize it, but that cats out of the bag.

  17. The TV license in the UK does not cover the iPlayer. It’s only for ‘live’ broadcasts.

    But the BBC still can’t open up the iPlayer to the world, because the content producers won’t allow it. They can make a lot more money by reselling the programs in many different countries.

  18. The Dutch public broadcast have it right :

    Unfortunately it’s a (not easily rippable) WMV stream, but it’s all available (except sport, but thats different, it’s a simulcast) and everywhere in the world.

  19. Well, Maurik, I imagine the market for dutch content is fairly limited outside the Netherlands.

  20. #9

    Tommus, it’s actually a bit more technical than looking through the html to find the “src” tag.

    In the comments section of the flickr page there’s a pretty good discussion, and the original blogger has put up a how-to page especially.

    However, in the same comments section, there is a link to a very small python script to do the same, without resorting to user-agent switching, and in fact I couldn’t get his iPlayerURL script to work for some reason.

    Here’s the python:


    import urllib

    def mp4url_from_showurl(url):
    page = urllib.urlopen(url).readlines()
    for line in page:
    if line.startswith(” pid : ‘”):
    pid = line[17:17+8]
    return “” % (pid)

    return None # not found!

    print mp4url_from_showurl(“”)

    You just change the bit in bold to the address of the program you want, save as a .py file and run it in the terminal, which returns the url plus the token you will need to download. then just grab the file in ur browser and watch in vlc..

  21. Call me crazy but if there are programs being broadcast for free that there’s no legal way for me to see them then I don’t see the harm in pirating them…

  22. I pay $5.95 per month to get it via Real Networks.

    People use Real Player? Really? I mean, really???

    Who are you people and out of what woodwork do you come from? Do you get to hang out with Elvis and Jimmy Hoffa for chicken and waffles at IHOP on weekends?

  23. iPlayer DRM has nothing to do with keeping people from outside of the UK watching iPlayer shows. There’s a geo-IP system that does that. The DRM is about restricting what the license-payer, who is forced, by law, to pay for the production of this programming, may do with it.

    The BBC’s charter does not require it to prevent foreigners from using its services, BTW — the charter prohibits the BBC from devoting extra resources to accomplishing this, though. That’s why there’s no geofence on’s news service.

  24. As a U.K. “subject”, we aren’t citizens, I still have to pay for a T.V. License. BBCi downloaded content expires after 30 days. The service itself is good for watching shows that you have missed (within the time limit, one week to download after broadcast, 30 days to watch).

    So, unlike content recorded “off air”, or, indeed Miro, on a VCR, DVR, TIVO etc. it is still “managed”.

  25. Sorry, just re-iterated Cory from #25 in #27.

    Note to self: please read all posts before posting.

  26. #21, nevertheless it’s now available to Dutch expats, citizens of Dutch speaking nations in S.America, and Afrikaans speakers in S.Africa and Namibia.

    Sure the market may not be as big, but it’s a step forward in non-restricted content delivery

  27. @zuzu “People use Real Player? Really? I mean, really???”

    Well … I like to watch English language International news and documentaries. BBC World, CNN International and Al Jazeera are the big three. None are generally available in the US via normal TV distribution (with a few local exceptions like BBC World on Cablevision in NYC). The Real Media stream is the only way to get BBC World online as far as I know.

    I actually use Real Alternative but I still need to login using Real Player. It works pretty well hooked up to a TV but I do wish they would make it easier.

  28. This service seems to have crashed. Or maybe be taken down thanks to this informative article.

    My tone there may seem critical, it isn’t. I tried to access the service using the guide (like iPlayer should have been designed in the first place). It failed.

    I am annoyed. I always trusted the BBC. The one voice that could be trusted. It still is that. But if you have to buy more things to get to that message then it defeats it’s own purpose. Content payed for by the subscription fee.

    My two cents are that anyone outside of the UK should not be using this service. You have Hula and we can’t access it, but I don’t hear you complaining about that. So consider that before you say that my point is not valid. I would have no problem if you guys watched adverts to cover costs, but they are unlikely to do that. They should do this to allow you access but won’t. Look on the bright side. You can get it all on torrent sites and then buy it over iTunes if you like it.

  29. My two cents are that anyone outside of the UK should not be using this service. You have Hula and we can’t access it, but I don’t hear you complaining about that.

    Tell ya what, Brits could have access to HULU and Staters could have access to BBC, and then you’ll both have access to both!

    Geolocation is completely utterly antithetical to the Internet. (Internet… International Network, remember?) It’s bad enough when Google tries to guess which “region” and language I “should” use based on my current IP address. It’s bad enough that people treat country code TLDs as anything other than cute domain name spelling tricks. But Balkanizing cyberspace based on antiquated concepts of borders and boundaries demonstrates a level of disrespect to netizens comparable to a bureaucrat drunkenly sleeping with your partner and then puking on her afterwards.

  30. There are a lot of us in the US who would gladly help subsidize the BBC by buying their material, but that just isn’t an option. We can’t subscribe to the iPlayer service, BBC America (if available) only shows 2 or 3 shows worth watching (a year or two after you get them), and the very few shows released on DVD are difficult to find and VERY expensive. Most of my favorite shows are produced by the BBC, but there is no legal means for me to watch them. You should be furious that BBC programs aren’t being sold on iTunes, or that an ad-supported/subscription iPlayer isn’t available for those outside the UK.

  31. only shows 2 or 3 shows worth watching (a year or two after you get them)

    Many of them are reformulated for PBS. Planet Earth, Ghost in Your Genes, and Simon Schama’s Power of Art leap immediately to mind. However I concur that the delay is dreadfully long.

  32. Zuzu in theory I agree with you, but here’s my problem.

    We pay for the BBC, you could get it for free aslong as (in adverst) revenue can be gained from you that would be of equal value. You see what I’m saying?

    It’s like us getting PBS after you guys do all the funding drives. Funding drives that for the sake of my metaphor are mandatory.

    I have no problem with you getting free BBC, aslong as I am not funding the bills for the rest of the world not to pay for it.

    I think (as I have posted on the BBC site, or at least attempted to since you need the web master to allow the post to go through) that the system needs overhauled. It is based on outmoded concepts such as DRM and Location based broadcasting when it doesn’t need to be.

    I mean it’s not like their shows can be downloaded off the Internet more easily than other ways allow. For example, Bittorrents with RSS feeds would allow you to download a program as soon as it is aired, using the software of your choice to do so.

    The BBC may well find that it is investing in an industry that will go exactly the same way as DRM’d music. Nobody wants to be told how to do things so they will find better and easier ways to do it, that don’t include them.

    I like that the BBC tries to lead inovation; in podcasting (which is notable not DRM’d) TV over mobile phone, the creaion of freeview and soon freesat. However, it is moving into the wrong direction.


  33. I will agree that the DVDs are VERY expensive. I mean £40 (or was it more) for 8 episodes of Torchwood series one? You must be kidding.

    But as for the release problems we have been having that for years with your shows so I know that pain. We routinely wait for all your media as long as that.

    I heard a few years ago that 70 percent of TV torrent downloads were from Britain and that didn’t surprise me, we get the shaft.

    The main problem however is that the BBC is stuck in the old way of doing things. Charging a mandatory fee to TV owners and showing it to those license payers. Now, with the Internet and easy distribution, there is obviously some infighting about what do do. With some claiming of the old folk thinking that ‘the colonies’ shouldn’t get the BBC for free. These are the kind of people that think TCP refers to a cream. The new agers, the iplayer inventors and alike, see a new golden age of broadcasting via new media channels. Though somewhere along the line it became perverted. Suddenly Microsoft were heroes in the EU instead of the vile criminals that they are, who are now trying to monopolize a new business.

    Suddenly we have DRM, Flash and exceptions for iPhones because the management use them and everyone forgets that the BBC is not a business. It’s meant to broadcast media, that’s all. Why create bariers to the poor and other countries when we could use their income.

    Why not sell it to Hulu and recieve a share of the profits? That is sheer genius, I am proud of that idea. So I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

  34. #33

    Lummy Al

    FYI, I just checked to see if the hack still works, and as of this moment it does. I am downloading a show as I type.

    I don’t know if it depends on which technique you use, but the python script I refer to above (#22) works fine.

  35. It will continue to work as long as it works on the iPhone, unless Apple license them fairplay or they implement their own DRM player.

  36. Well done, you spotted a plain text URL in an HTML document… you do realise that the signals that come through the air can give you this exact same content? Possibly a bit technical for “bloggers”…

    Thanks for your useful input. Yeah, it’s far too technical for me, and yeah, funnily enough the URL was just sat there, clear as day, on a static HTML document.

    Yeah. Thanks.

    (Psst! Here’s a hint in advance – as you read this, think about it being said in a sarcastic tone of voice. As another correspondent mentioned, details of what was necessary is on the Flickr page.)

  37. Well, if you will run windows xp in duplo mode…

    That’ll be because I write software for schools, 99% of whom run Windows XP with much the same settings. There seems to be a resistance to change defaults and, as such, my company follows suit. I’ll be sure to experiment in this way from my Ubuntu box next time =)

  38. Hi,
    Two questions pop up in my mind: I’m from the continent but I love the BBC and I’ve been waiting for this for quite some time now. But:

    – where can I find any of the streams/downloads? When I go to, whatever link I follow, I can’t find a link to a stream anywhere? In fact, not even for the BBC world service a stream seems to exist?! What am I doing wrong?

    – Can I watch my beloved Dr. who / Torchwood this way? But – same problem – on no stream to be found. Well, would have been to good to be true anyway…

  39. EAI

    Cool! I was lead to believe the ‘token’ was required too. I just tried your link and it downloads fine without it.


  40. Well, someone will find out what they’ve changed and fix it. Should be possible to just packet sniff an iPhone’s connection and play that back.

  41. As I see it if I’m paying for a UK license I should be able to view the content anywhere in the world. I am happy to VIEW even if I can’t download – which, as a Mac viewer, I can’t do anyway! was brilliant while it lasted, it’s a pity the BBC service isn’t as good.

    As such I see no reason for not taking whatever steps necessary to view UK TV while abroad as long as I pay for the license to watch it.

  42. That’s kinda cool but at the same I would prefer to watch the shows in linux without spoofing.

    I dual boot linux mint and XP and whenever I watch something on the iPlayer I make sure that I boot into linux. software magazzino provide plate forms To up the count of linux users using the site.

    You can say that increasing the count by 1 will not make any difference but you can say the same thing about the vote and we all know that we’d prefer a democracy.

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