iPlayer, DRM, & OS Neutrality with BBC’s Head of Digital Media Technolog Anthony Rose

In your blog you wrote that the BBC “launched [the] BBC iPlayer back in  Dec 2007” followed with “But if you wanted to download our TV  programmes, well, that was PC only”. This leads me to wonder if you even  understand what a PC is. GNU/Linux operating systems run on different architectures. Like MS Windows runs on the PC so does GNU/Linux. It may even refer to a modern Mac today. Prior to this the iPlayer was not available for any PC operating system except MS Windows. Given this can you clarify what you meant?

Hi, thanks for giving me the opportunity to respond.

“PC only –> “Windows only” Re. the “But if you wanted to download our TV programmes, well, that was PC only” line in my blog, you’re absolutely right – that was a typo on my part – I did of course mean “Windows only”.

The second issue I came across in statements you have made recently was the iPlayer now being platform neutral. The iPlayer is clearly not platform neutral. The iPlayer depends on Adobe Air. Adobe Air  uses a restrictive license that prevents its inclusion or use on different platforms. The license does not allow you to modify the installer or distribute other related dependent files. While there may only be three well known operating systems today Toshiba is planning to support Solaris as early as 2009. Do you then plan to rewrite the iPlayer for Solaris or GNewSense which do not have Adobe Air support?

“Platform neutral” vs. “Cross-platform” I think you’ll agree that over the past 18 months we’ve made significant progress on making iPlayer cross platform, meaning that it works on a wide variety of platforms. We’ve gone from being Windows-only to now being accessible on the large number of platforms and devices shown at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/where_to_get_iplayer/

But you’d like us to go further, and not just have iPlayer available on these platforms, but also to make it open, in that end users, not just the BBC, can port it to additional platforms of their choice.

We’d love to be able to do this, and for some content (images, podcasts) we already do so. However, for video content where the BBC Trust and rights holders require content protection, it’s not currently in our power to be able to go that far, no matter how much we’d like to.

I think it’s safe to say that the heart of the disagreement between where we are today with iPlayer available on a wide variety of platforms and where you (and for that matter me too) would like us to be comes down to the requirement that we use DRM.

You mentioned that the BBC press office article on me suggested that I support DRM. That’s actually not the case. I’m here to deliver the best possible user proposition subject to the constraints that we need to live within. Back in 2001 music labels made their content available with a strict DRM requirement. Since my company wished to build a licensed music store, we had to abide by those terms. Cut to 2007 and much music is now available DRM-free – a huge improvement on the position in 2001.

Similarly, the BBC Trust has mandated a 7/30/7 day license window, and that requires DRM, whether I like it or not. Were this constraint to be removed, and rights holder agreements allow it, then of course we would love to embrace a DRM-free content deliver method – it would make our lives so much easier and provide for a better user proposition. But we have to work within the rules imposed on us.

In cases where ‘infinite availability’ is allowed, and rights holders allow, we do make our content available without DRM – e.g. radio podcasts (which, per my blog, we plan to make available for download in iPlayer Desktop, DRM-free of course).

Today we support a variety of DRM solutions including Microsoft, Adobe and OMA DRM, with others being evaluated. Yes, it is DRM, and like you we’d prefer that DRM wasn’t required. But until we’re in a world where we’re allowed to offer video without time restrictions the best we can do is to support a range of solutions that allows playback on as wide a variety of platforms as possible subject to available solutions.

The third problem I saw with the release of the Adobe Air iPlayer for other operating systems is that it doesn’t resolve the concerns of users over DRM. The BBC has made a number of contradictory moves in relation to DRM. A while back it was discovered that the iPlayer for the iPod for instance had no DRM. How can you justify releasing a player for free or open source platform with DRM and do the reverse for a non-free and restrictive device like the iPod?

In your blog you claim that DRM is neccessary. How can you make such claims when the iPlayer for the iPod contains no DRM? In your blog you explain some of the problems with releasing non-DRM content by putting the issue aside and blaming the BBC Trust and the industry. As far as I can tell nothing says that DRM must be used to restrict content for 7 or 30 days. Based on these requirements even an open source player could written to drop stored content after 7 or 30 days. While this may not prevent people from keeping content longer neither does DRM in practice. What DRM does is make it more cumbersome for legitimate users to access the content in ways protected under the law.

DRM-free content for iPod The 7/30/7 rights restriction imposed on us requires us to use DRM for Downloads – it’s the only way to disable content after it’s been downloaded.

On the other hand, for streaming the rights window is enforced by simply not making the stream available after the rights window has ended.

Accordingly, for streaming we do not currently need to use DRM, and indeed we make broadcast TV and radio programmes available as an unencrypted stream, and have been doing so for decades.

For on-demand, we make our content available for streaming using RTMP, RTSP, Real, Windows streaming and other means to support a wide variety of supported playback devices.

And, yes, it is possible to record those streams – you can freely record TV and radio broadcasts, for years it’s been possible to use various means to rip on-demand radio streams, it’s possible to crack Windows DRM, and it’s possible to use various programmes to rip our RTMP and iPhone streams.

Does the ability to rip our streams or crack the DRM we use make it right, or imply that the possibility of doing so implies that this is a legitimate use case. No. It simply means that some small percent of the population has circumvented a protection mechanism or delivery mechanism that we’ve been required to use to support playback on a given device.

Some people claim that the fact that DRM can be cracked means that the whole thing is pointless, and we may as well simply make all our content available in the clear. But consider this: We’ve all seen videos of thieves breaking into a car in 60s or less. We all know that it’s easy to pick any common lock. And yet we still lock our cars and our house doors when we go to sleep at night. Sure, a small percent of people have the skills to open that lock, but that doesn’t prevent us using the lock because it works 99.9…% of the time.

I anticipated this line of discussion, and I tried to pick up some of the above in my blog, but clearly this is going to be an ongoing debate.

We feel that we’ve made huge strides to being platform-neutral, but recognize that this is a journey, not a destination. We know that iPlayer Desktop doesn’t work on some Linux platforms. It also doesn’t work on all Mac and Windows platforms. In some cases that’s because of early release bugs, in other cases the issue is more difficult to resolve.

We’d love to get feedback and community expertise on the most widely used Linux and other platforms to support, so we can focus our efforts on getting iPlayer streaming and downloading working there. And, yes, to the extent that we’re allowed to make our content available in a fully open manner, we’d love to do that too.

Let me know how I can help.

Anthony

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