BBC's plan to kick free/open source out of UK TV devices

My latest Guardian column, "The BBC's digital rights plans will wreak havoc on open source software," describes how the BBC's plan to add DRM to its high-def broadcasts will exclude free/open source software from use in digital television applications, slowing down innovation, raising costs, and harming the public interest. The BBC's regulator, Ofcom, will soon hold a second consultation on the Beeb's plan to add DRM to high-def broadcasts, and I'm urging them to get the BBC to answer for this consequence of the DRM plan.
The entire DTLA system relies on the keys necessary to authenticate devices and unscramble video being kept secret, and on the rules governing the use of keys being inviolable. To that end, the DTLA "Compliance and Robustness Agreement" (presented as "Annex C" to the DTLA agreement) has a number of requirements aimed at ensuring that every DTLA-approved device is armoured against user modification. Keys must be hidden. Steps must be taken to ensure that the code running on the device isn't modified. Failure to take adequate protection against user modification will result in DTLA approval being withheld or revoked.

This is where the conflict with free/open source software arises.

Free/open source software, such as the GNU/Linux operating system that runs many set-top boxes, is created cooperatively among many programmers (thousands, in some cases). Unlike proprietary software, such as the Windows operating system or the iPhone's operating system, free software authors publish their code and allow any other programmer to examine it, make improvements to it, and publish those improvements. This has proven to be a powerful means of quickly building profitable new businesses and devices, from the TomTomGo GPSes to Google's Android phones to the Humax Freeview box you can buy tonight at Argos for around £130.

Because it can be adapted by anyone, free software is an incredible source of innovative new ideas. Because it can be used without charge, it has allowed unparalleled competition, dramatically lowering the cost of entering electronics markets. In short, free software is good for business, it's good for the public, it's good for progress, and it's good for competition.

But free software is bad for DTLA compliance.

The BBC's digital rights plans will wreak havoc on open source software

(Image: JERKS!, a Creative Commons Attribution photo from ebmorse's photostream)


  1. Slightly OT but have you ever mentioned anything about this sort of thing. It’s about the way the BBC is constantly promoting the use of DAB radio over the alternative of internet radios. I’m a great lover of my WIFI radio that allows me to listen to stations from all over the world as well as allowing access to all the BBC stations (national and regional) as well as their on-demand streams. I’m normally a supporter of the BBC but in this case as far as I can see they are showing preference to the commercial interests of DAB manufacturers over internet radio manufacturers. DAB is a lesser format with less stations, less prospects (internet streaming quality can only increase whilst DAB is going to be stuck at its current level), often lower quality (some DAB music stations have been caught broadcasting in mono) and, although it is admittedly currently far more portable than it’s online equivalent, the way it is being portrayed by the BBC is as if there are no other options. This sort of push could conceivably be used to hasten the FM switch off that will be costly to smaller stations when forced to switch to transmitting DAB rather than obviously cheaper internet streaming services (bandwidth, etc. being increasingly cheap).

    There are other issues to do with the DAB service in the UK and non-BBC promoters that I could go on about but my frustrations are pretty boring and unrelated to this post so I’ll stop now to save me going crazy.

    (I should mentions here that admittedly the site I linked to hasn’t been updated enough recently but the points still stand)

    1. Can I just complain about my own grammar here. “Less stations, less prospects”!!??!!??! Annoyingmouse, you imbecile, it’s “fewer”. Gosh, where did he learn English? If there’s a lesson here people, it’s not about my complaints, it’s about double checking your rushed comments!

  2. People who make nothing but money don’t have the right heart to even understand the concept of sharing for the common good.

  3. Lets not forget that all this material they are hiding has already been paid for by the people they are hiding it from.

  4. Lets not forget that all this material they are hiding has already been paid for by the people they are hiding it from.

  5. Tweeker, the license fee does nt cover the costs of unlimited repeat showing of much of the material at stake here. What’s at issue are things like Mad Man and other HBO mega productions, where the audience, via the BBC, has paid for the right to recieve free to air broadcasts of material. If you want more (and I agree you may legitimately want a bit more) then the providers of that content often say ‘fine, but you must pay us more’.

    This is why the Wire, for example, never made it onto iPlayer.

    I’m not saying the “licese fee has already paid for it” is never a valid argument, but it doesn’t cover allcases, and importntly it doesn’t cover the key critical cases where DRM rears it’s ugly head.

  6. Good luck. Almost all TV’s these days run linux. I’m sure prices would skyrocket and interfaces would look primitive and choppy if manufacturers had to write their own code.


  7. =Lets not forget that all this material they are hiding has already been paid for by the people they are hiding it from=

    Lets not forget that some of the people they are hiding it from will seek to obtain it for free unless someone prevents them from doing so. Lets also remember that if everyone that desires this material pays a share of the cost then the people that are currently paying will end up paying less. DRM sucks but its a commercial answer to a social problem.

    1. Your comment that “DRM sucks but its a commercial answer to a social problem.” is simply not on. Instead of working on my novel I spent the day writing a new blog post precisely because DRM is BAD!

      Too bad I hadn’t read this first as I may have reconsidered giving the BBC a plug.

      No way no how is DRM good. One of the worst things about DRM is that consumers don’t even know it’s happening most of the time. Mostly we just think the manufacturers are incompetent.

      I think that Tweeker’s comment: “Lets not forget that all this material they are hiding has already been paid for by the people they are hiding it from.” referred to the fact that BBC is paid for by UK taxpayers in the same way Canadian taxpayers pay for our own CBC. If that is the case, BBC would be wise to heed their masters– the public– because it is they who foot the bill. Foreign licensing obligations BBC undertakes should not drive BBC policy.

      It is because creators have begun to create music and movies without the middleman that these absurd laws and changes are happening. Things like filesharing have allowed 30% of the music industry to function without forcing the artists to sign away their souls (and worse their copyright) in order to reach an audience. Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues is the first but not the last feature film to do this. This means that big movie and music companies are no longer in total control.

      Things like the Digital Economy Bill and ACTA are merely the attempts of dying industries to hold on to what was effectively omnipotence. Is it any wonder they’d rather stop progress than adapt?

      Regardless, the fruit of the tree has been eaten; there are too many consumers who KNOW what the world should be like.

  8. I am wondering what would happen if more people started producing content for online distribution.

    I will still take a year to get my first series finished, but I see sites like Hulu as a way to make a fair amount of money from a cheaply made guerrilla show.

    If enough people see the opportunity, we could make the BBC irrelevant anyway. If you really want to hurt them, take their viewers from them, then you could put political pressure on politicians to reduce or remove the TV license because no one is watching.

  9. I think this must have something to do with CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

    Or maybe I’ve been reading too much Stross…

  10. Cory is being disingenuous in several ways here.

    There is nothing in the proposal (at least as described above) that prevents TV equipment being built with free software.

    Rather, what is at issue is a provision in version 3 of the GNU GPL which requires that devices using code subject to the license must permit the end-user to modify the software on the device.

    In addition the excerpt attempts to describe “GNU/Linux” as though it were a discrete thing, rather than a loose term describing many different things which are in turn governed by a wide variety of license agreements, some of which are covered by GPLv3 and others (including such critical components as the kernel, widely used in consumer electronics devices today) which are not.

    The subject is complex, but the post above really has to be understood to be coming from one very specific faction in an ongoing conflict between equipment makers, content providers, third parties looking for any of several kinds of a free ride, and (stuck in the middle and mostly suffering for it) consumers of varying levels of technical competency.

    It certainly isn’t the case that equipment manufacturers will continue to build products using poorly integrated, often buggy versions of “free” software that they don’t understand, can’t optimise for their product, and have no hope of supporting meaningfully in the field.

    For all the hoo-ha about how free software is critical for the rapid advancement of the state of the art (for the record, I agree with this), it’s important not to loose sight of the value that comes from having some degree of vertical integration. When a product’s built by someone that actually understands it from top to bottom, it tends to be a better thing; whether that understanding has to do with hardware/software/user interface in a consumer electronics device, or fluid dynamics and electrical motor design in a vacuum cleaner.

    = Mike

    1. Oh bother. That should have read

      It certainly isn’t the case that equipment manufacturers won’t continue to build products…

      = Mike

  11. Mike Smith is being disingenuous in several ways here.

    As he knows full well, this is all part of the war between copyright owners and everyone else, some of whom have already realised they do have a choice (the geeks and youngsters), some who have a vague idea other options exist (the parents) and the rest who haven’t got a clue and will believe that the authorities only have their best interests at heart and will carry on the same as the last 40 years.

    This war is about having the content providers NOT telling people what they can do with their purchased content. Despite Napster 10 years ago et al. the media industries STILL don’t understand that people want to be able to whatever they choose with their own media, whether its watching on a TV, an iphone, a PC or anything else.

    FTR DRM is dead. Anything DRM’d is available elsewhere. Free. Period.

  12. I do not want DRM in BBC signals that I consume here in the UK.

    Security by obscurity (i.e. hiding the source code) is well known to be a very poor kind of security, and not essential, or arguably of much value in “armouring” agains code modification or key discovery.

    It sounds like, and would be more effective, if “armouring” mean taking physical steps to prevent the modification of code or discovery of keys. For example, making sure the code is not stored in a way that means the user can replace it with his own code, with an update, or by levering out one chip and replacing it with another. Thus “armouring” could be achieved without any need to place restrictions on source code – or Open Source licenses.

    However, it would get in the way of trying out open source modifications on hardware, which I guess is the way it is developed. But there’s nothing to stop manufacturers providing versions of the hardware that can be uploaded, but lack the ability to play unauthorised DRM content.

  13. Part of the problem is that, as someone who pays the licence fee, if I don’t like how the BBC behaves, I can’t refuse to pay it — unless, broadly speaking, I want to go jail.

    OTOH if the system didn’t work like that then the BBC would not have the metric shitload of money that it mostly uses to set a really good example to other broadcasters.

    I’m not sure that there are any easy answers here.

  14. Just to clarify one point: Ofcom is not the BBC’s regulator. It regulates other TV channels. The BBC has its own regulator, the BBC Trust, a descendant of the BBC Governors who were disbanded after the BBC went to war with the government over the start of the Iraq war and lost. For most purposes, especially this type of thing, the BBC is in regulatory limbo.

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