The BBC is getting an ass-kicking in the technological playground that is the Internet at the moment. This is mainly because it’s playing by the rules whilst others are playing fast and loose (Last.fm, YouTube to name just two) with the legal niceties.
My own personal opinion is that the BBC made a decision to go with peer-to-peer technology as a means to distribute their content online and as a result of this they ended up having to implement a proprietary DRM solution (and thus took away the ability to be cross-platform) to try and satisfy some of the competing stakeholders, which naturally ended up disenfranchising other stakeholders. Somebody had to make the unenviable call as to who would lose out (possibly just in the short-term with a view to meeting their requirements in the long term) – but there was always going to be a loser.
Now, if it were up to me I would have gone with centralised distribution of high quality audio/video via multicast, low bitrate DRM-free downloads (i.e. the poor man’s BBC) and a “streaming” Flash 30 day catch-up service. Why? – because soon the problem won’t be getting to see content online but being able to find the quality from the tidal wave of content that is coming. With plummeting storage costs and soaring broadband speeds the amount of content that can be stored and moved around the Internet will only increase exponentially.
This would have caused a problem with rights holders but I would have worked with them to bring them into the Promised Land – as they will thank the BBC in the long run when they realise that getting your stuff found online is going to be their biggest headache – when Google/News Corp/Microsoft/Yahoo become the gatekeepers. The BBC have little text links beside their news stories (some might dare to call them ads) to take you to the appropriate website of an individual or organisation named in the article. Having a 30 day catch-up service that had a URL to take you to the rights holders’ commercial offering or a low bitrate download which had embedded html links or a watermark which “linked” you to the rights holders high bitrate offering would be a massive service to the rights holders and simply an expansion on an existing practice.
Now they may have not gone for this but I would have tried something else and then something else and then something else – because I fundamentally believe it would have actually been in the best interests of the rights holders (even though they may not have recognised it immediately) in the long run.
Rights should be protected. Starting with the consumer’s. If the BBC had started from this premise then it would have won more advocates – as it is it has continued down the dead-end of using DRM to protect the content – which is doomed to failure, as the very notion of DRM protecting any content evaporated with FairUse4WM being updated before the iPlayer soft launch and allowing all the files to be cracked – resulting in press releases stating that all DRM is going to get cracked – thus making the whole process invalid and pointless. The thing to remember though is that the guys designing the iPlayer system would have implemented DRM for the rights holders, whose wishes are in direct conflict with the licence fee payer’s rights whose wishes are in economic conflict with the wishes of the industry players, etc – so it was always going to be in conflict with one interested parties wishes.
Rights should be protected. Starting with those of the licence fee payer, those of the content creator, those of the copyright holder, etc. They may need to stop calling it Digital Rights Management though – as I’m sure most people now interpret this as some kind of “Microsoft knows best” and “We will only let you watch/listen/print/etc what we want you to watch/listen/print/etc”. So instead it may be worth rebranding it as Digital Rights Protection and start from the point of wishing to protect peoples rights – those of the licence fee payer, those of the content creator, those of the copyright holder, etc. and not worry about how you protect the content for the moment – to be fair it hasn’t been a huge success up to now (unless you’re selling a DRM solution, but even then those days are numbers as evidenced by SONY rootkits and Amazon/Virgin Digital/Google Video all pulling their DRM offerings) and when in a hole the best thing to do, to begin with, is stop digging!
Anybody who thinks they’ve got the answer – they don’t! They just have a way of satisfying their needs/requirements/desires – but this means that someone else will suffer – as at the end of the day the BBC is comprised of a group of competing wishes and desires and operating in a competitive marketplace where it has the added impediment of government oversight et al.
There are very, very smart people working at the BBC. They are fully aware of all of the ins and outs of the arguments. Sometimes someone makes a decision and it’s the wrong one in the long term, but in the short term it is absolutely the right one – as it deals with the immediately biggest hurdle, which if it isn’t surmounted then all the subsequent little hurdles matter not a jot. The important thing to remember is the BBC does not operate in a vacuum, not only does it’s actions have repercussions on the industry but also because it’s looking to play in the online environment, then stuff can come out of left field and completely scupper it’s best laid plans. It’s a giant in the historical broadcasting era but it’s just another player, for the moment, in the online world.
The iPlayer Reality Distortion Field is obviously nature’s way of balancing out the Steve Jobs RDF! Just as Steve Jobs continues to make silk purses out of sows’ ears, so the iPlayer continues to be King Midas in reverse. Eric Huggers, ex Microsoft, had nothing to do with DRM on either iPlayer or iMP – and since he joined the BBC announces that it will be “streaming” content via Adobe flash – yet he is held up as an example of the Microsoft disease in the BBC.
Anybody who says this has never worked in the BBC. There is a corporate desire to use the pervasive platform versus the creative desire to use the most versatile and inspiring versus the engineers desire to use the most robust and most technically solid versus the news/vision/audio and music/nations and regions/etc divisions desire to use their application– this is the same in any creative organisation I would imagine – but if you haven’t worked there then you would just assume that what is rolling out the door is some “BBC” master plan but it isn’t – what you get most of the time is a compromise.
Points off the top of my head:
1. Good people on iPlayer working against competing goals – rights owners versus licence fee payers versus industry players versus government restrictions versus industry watchdog versus governors/trustees versus changing marketplace
2. Agreement with PACT for 30 days – the Trust says 16???? WTF?
3. The Beethoven downloads were done without consulting and MIA by OFCOM specifically legislates against classical music downloading – a real-world example OFCOM had to work with or an opportunity to set an example as a warning to others? Either way this is an example of the law of unintended consequences.
4. The iPlayer service is the on-demand service BUT there is also an iPlayer application. The iPlayer service is the important thing – which establishes the BBC’s right to deliver content over IP. The iPlayer application (the thing with the DRM) is the uncle we shall not speak of.
5. The Trust coming along and saying that they recognise that 80% of people submitting an opinion didn’t want DRM but they were going to ignore this??? WTF?
Yes the BBC should do good – as the current funding model allows it to operate in a way that should free it from the day-to-day hubbub of corporate politics – but the changing media landscape means that some attempts at adapting will be wrong, not through any malice or nefarious plan, but simply with so many competing interests to satisfy taking a punt on one possible solution is guaranteed to piss somebody off but at least it is worth it if the market is going in the same direction. All that’s happened with the iPlayer at the moment is that someone made a call but the market has gone in a different direction, the BBC will now need to re-align to the new playing field.
As long as people care then the BBC is in rude health. I know this can seem like a huge annoyance when you have to listen to people spouting their vested interest with no regard for others interests, but the fact that people still think their voice counts means they are still investing in the BBC. When people stop caring is when you’re screwed.
(Update – this is a reposting of an original entry.)