Sometimes, Auntie has to sleep with Bill

The BBC has got into bed with Microsoft to provide its planned “download everything BBC TV shows for a week after the event for free” service.

The BBC and Microsoft? Surely the BBC is a public service organisation, digital rights management (DRM) is evil and Microsoft is worse? Why not use Ogg or some similar open-geek format? We’ve already paid our licence fee… surely this goes against the free-to-air ethos that the Beeb stands for?

Not in this case, actually. The Beeb has been forced by its agreements with royalties organisations and other copyright holders [1] to use secure DRM on its online output, so that the casual user can’t download programmes, burn them onto DVDs and give them to their friends. It’s also working with Apple and NTL to build secure DRM for people other than traditional PC users.

Why not go open-source? There is not yet a consumer-ready open-source DRM application that would reassure rights holders that their content would be protected. There is a question mark for many businesses over the compatibility in principle between open-source and DRM. And rights holders are not willing to allow the BBC to release content for which they hold the copyright unless DRM is used.

As any open source evangelist will tell you, no DRM system is actually secure. Still, this isn’t entirely insane of the rights holders. If a system is strong enough to deter everyone except clever hackers and serious pirates from bothering to break it, it is good enough. Individually ripped TV shows will still be uploadable to P2P networks and sold on pirate DVDs (as they are now from DVD and the airwaves), but using P2P or buying movies from a gangster in a pub is too dodgy and too much effort for the vast majority of users.

The BBC has a choice of either using closed standards to make its wealth of content available on the web, or of not making its wealth of content available on the web. Out of those options, I’m glad it’s chosen the first – even though I’d prefer the impossible option of free DivXs all round.

[1] My girlfriend played a minor [2] role in a popular BBC show 12 years ago. She still gets sent the occasional cheque for a few pounds from overseas sales and repeats. Actors unions, reasonably, aren’t going to give up these kinds of rights, no matter how much we’d all like to see a perpetual, legal, free-to-view drama archive.

[2] A dead minor, as it happens.

  1. Michael said:

    Although for obvious reasons I can’t go into the fine detail of rightsholder agreements that I’m personally involved with, as someone who deals with these issues every single working day I’m very happy to endorse this piece.

    I was particularly impressed that you covered the union issue, as that’s something most people aren’t aware of – understandably so, as it’s not really relevant to anyone outside the industry.

    But another crucial issue that you don’t mention is the territorial one. Rightsholders only have the legal right to permit online access within the territory that comes under their jurisdiction. For instance, I’ve been making clips from the BBC Television Shakespeare productions available online in the UK (strictly limited to schools and libraries only, but that’s another issue), and the BBC, Equity, etc. have been happy to give me the go-ahead.

    But I cannot make this material available outside the UK under any circumstances whatsoever, as each additional territory would require renegotiation with the relevant rightsholders. And in the case of small independent productions that might have been sold to a different distributor in every territory, this rapidly becomes a legal and logistical nightmare.

    So unless you own the material 100%, by which I mean you also have waivers from all potentially interested third parties (and how likely is it that you’ll get Equity to sign up to that?), making DRM-free material available is fraught with legal peril – not least the threat of a justified lawsuit from one of your foreign distributors.

    (On the subject of “free DivXs all round”, I had a wonderful, impossibly utopian e-mail from someone who interpreted this announcement as meaning that he would be able to download everything that had ever been broadcast on British television, as well as everything in the National Film and Television Archive, was very disappointed that he was wrong, and urged us to consider something along those lines. Yes, it is a nice idea, isn’t it? Ain’t never gonna happen in a million billion trillion years – quite aside from the copyright issues, can you imagine what it would cost to digitise everything? – but it’s a nice idea nonetheless)

  2. Fred Engels said:

    This blog is a little slow moving for a man of action like me – when’s the next post?

  3. John B said:

    Good question. I just wrote another decent-length piece, but posted it on my own blog to avoid looking greedy over here…