Secret documents reveal the flimsy case for Ofcom to give into BBC's public TV DRM demands

The Guardian just published an investigative piece I've been working on since the summer: "How the BBC's HD DRM plot was kept secret … and why." It contains the previously secret text of a memo that the BBC sent to the UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, explaining why they wanted to put DRM on publicly funded broadcasts.

The British public overwhelmingly rejected this approach, as did archivists, tech companies, activists, scholars, disabled rights groups and others. But Ofcom granted permission anyway, saying that the BBC's secret memo made a compelling case for DRM being in the public interest. Both Ofcom and the BBC refused to disclose what the BBC's arguments had been, declining both press queries and Freedom of Information requests.

Essentially, the BBC and Ofcom were saying that DRM was in the public interest, but it wasn't in the public interest for the public to know why. I acquired a copy of the secret text and, as I think you'll see, it does not contain any sort of compelling evidence in support of DRM. Rather, it makes flimsy and sometimes laughable arguments (for example, the BBC says HBO demands DRM on its programming, but HBO has an exclusive deal with BBC rival Sky, so it won't be licensing new programming to the BBC, with our without DRM). What's more, the BBC's claim that this material was "commercially sensitive" doesn't bear up to scrutiny -- is it really "commercially sensitive" for the BBC to publish the fact that people like to watch movies on TV?

At the end of the day, I'm left with the impression I got the first time I met with Ofcom about this: that Ofcom wanted this and the BBC wanted it, and regardless of the public interest, the evidence, or the law, they'd get it. In my opinion, the secrecy that Ofcom and the BBC deployed here was only there to allow them to say, "Well, it seems difficult to understand why we're doing this, but that's only because we can't tell you about the important, secret stuff."

Here the BBC discusses its plan to accommodate educators, critics and archivists. It plans on establishing a confidential marketplace for more powerful "professional" TV receivers and recorders that can defeat its scrambling system. This bizarre system – creating an entity that would have to manufacture and distribute these devices, after approving the credentials of archivists, critics and scholars – is meant to be kept secret because it makes it clear that it would be easy to defeat the scheme.

So here you have the BBC claiming in one breath that its partners want effective protection from copying, and in the next breath saying that this won't be very effective protection.

Funnily enough, "this will be easy to defeat" is a point that many of the individuals and institutions who formed the majority opposed to this plan made in their statements.

How the BBC's HD DRM plot was kept secret … and why


  1. So has the exclusion of the broad public from the channels of influence and power become more pervasive and unassailable, or are have we just now become better at digging instances of it up? Maybe both?

    Disgusting whatever the case.

  2. I know, I know: BBC is actually trying to help people by making them buy new HD receivers and TVs and regulating the usage of programs thus creating jobs in industry, regulation administration and DRM business and as a bonus everybody wins as taxes are collected from new devices! Less electircity is also consumed as people will spend less time watching programs they miss and because they don’t have money to replace broken TVs! Libraries are flocked by people seeking entertainment from.. ahem. It’s the coffee in me.

  3. I can see that your cold-extracted coffee is working well! Great post, and thanks for making me feel a little better about living in the USA… We need more white knights like yourself defending content!

  4. Eugh, every day I feel a little more conned having to pay the BBC a license fee to be exposed to their saccharin propaganda and shit like this.

    Do they even need license money any more now they run a worldwide service?

  5. So f***ing sick of Digital Restrictions Management.

    I wish they’d stop insulting the public by calling DRM “Digital Rights Management”. It has nothing to do with my rights as a consumer/owner/customer, and everything to do with some irrelevant industry types imposing their restrictions on the media I like to listen to / watch / read.

  6. They are so greedy and self centered they do not see the negative downside they have sentenced themselves too. Thanks for protecting me from myself you short sighted twits.

  7. I’m not suggesting this in any way undermines the argument that the BBC should not have DRM, but my recollection is that the BBC has lost programming in the past because it refused to impose DRM on broadcasts. Unfortunately I’m not able to turn up anything on Google to verify this memory, but I’m pretty sure that part of the reason that Fox sold 24 to Sky 1 from season 3 onwards is because the BBC had no mechanism in place to impose DRM. I’m sure there were other factors involved such as attempting to keep Fox programming on Sky 1 to bring it back within the Murdoch empire, but (unless I’m completely wrong) DRM was cited as a factor.

    1. Presumably, the major reason that Fox gives preferential treatment to Sky is that they’re owned by the same company.

      1. I’m pretty sure it’s a case of highest bidder wins, just because News Corp “owns” Sky doesn’t mean they give the show to Sky for free.

    2. That’s actually a fantastic argument AGAINST drm. Less US crap bought by BBC => more money for homegrown productions.  I don’t watch Downton Abbey, but just reading about it, you can see the sort of connection it makes with people just by talking about England, rather than some random terrorist-fighter working for a President we don’t elect.

  8. I really hope that it is easy to defeat.   Because as well as being immoral this is commercial suicide, and I’d hate to lose the BBC.

    I mean, really?  Who is going to want to make these special boxes just for the UK?

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