James O'Neill's Blog

June 29, 2007

Open source lobby: "We’ll get the EU to stop your telly"

Filed under: Music and Media — jamesone111 @ 2:56 pm

For some reason media seems to be on my mind at the moment….

The BBC i-player is to go live at the end of July. This follows Channel 4”s “4OD” service (I’m a bit peeved the that it’s not available on Vista today, but C4 tell me it’s in the Pipeline) . Five has five download, Sky have “Sky Anytime” and  which is also XP only (not Vista) . They use the same off-the-shelf DRM package which is already present on most of the world’s PCs: Windows media player.

Performers, writers and others involved in a production are paid based on how many people have access to something. Releases on DVD carry a fee. Repeats carry a fee. I don’t know, but I suspect there is a difference between “catch again” repeats – i.e. the ones on BBC Three the next day – and “real” repeat-as-nearly-new-content – the ones which run 2 years later on UK Gold.

In the UK section 70 of the Copyrights designs and Patents Act says “The making for private and domestic use of a recording of a broadcast or cable programme solely for the purpose of enabling it to be viewed or listened to at a more convenient time does not infringe any copyright in the broadcast or cable programme or in any work included in it” – when I wrote about giving media center’s recordings “a permanence they weren’t supposed to have” that was in the back of my mind.

It’s  easy to see that a “catch-up” download service belongs in the same category as the “time-shift” Video recording, and “catch again repeats”, but giving people copies to keep belongs to the same category as selling the programme on DVD. So how does one ensure that a service is catch-up, and not keep-a-copy. That’s where DRM comes in. It’s a technology which gets a bad press, because it means restricting what people can do. Classically when you bought a record or a CD there was no mechanism to stop you making copies: DRM defines what you can do, and everything else is forbidden; which isn’t nice. Of course there is a trade off, because if the restrictions are tolerable and it means I get something that would otherwise languish a vault somewhere that’s fine with me. 

A DRM application decrypts the content and does what it is allowed to do and no more. This means you can’t have open source DRM: the first thing that would happen is that someone would produce a version that dumped out the unencrypted information. This isn’t to say a “secret source” DRM app can’t run on an Open Source OS. Microsoft could produce media player for Linux. But there are a number of reasons why this is unlikely. (a) Why would we help the adoption of a competing platform ? (b) Some Linux users are pragmatists – people who like to dig into the code of the OS. But others are ideologues who would not have Microsoft software on their machine even it were free. There is also a subset who would not accept DRM from any vendor because to their way of thinking does not allow for intellectual property rights.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the “Open Source Consortium”  have weighed in. In the BBC’s report of their threat to go to the EU, their president is quoted as saying  “In an ideal world all DRM would be removed”. In his world perhaps; to the broadcasters who wouldn’t distribute content that could be watched forever that’s not ideal at all. The OSC’s web site shows they have been trying to stop the BBC i-Player by talking to the UK regulator Ofcom. Ofcom appear to have given them the response they deserved. With Channels 4,5 and Sky are already using this technology and don’t support anything but Windows; the fact that BBC downloadable content isn’t available on Linux is not going to sway people who want Linux to buy Windows. They also try to muddy the waters using the EUs ruling which forced the creation of “N” versions of XP and Vista without Media player. To the broadcasters it is fantastic  for the same player to be on 90% of computers with broadband. The EU competition commission is charged with promoting competition (they don’t act on behalf of consumers) to them 20 competing players with less than 10% is far better than one with 90%.  That doesn’t give a platform which gets services delivered.

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.

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