Category Archives: P2P

BBC iPlayer, DRM, cross platform support and Peer-to-Peer Part II.

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 (, 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.

Part I

BBC iPlayer, DRM, cross platform support and Peer-to-Peer – Part I

 BBC Backstage interview with Ashley Highfield:

The BBC Backstage mailing list:

More press around the topic:,39024667,39168980,00.htm?r=9,1000000121,39290458,00.htm?r=2

Cory Doctorow’s BoingBoing post on the matter:

A previous BBC Backstage podcast on DRM:

A previous Ashley Highfield interview:

My previous comments on DRM, the iPlayer, cross platform support and Peer-to-Peer:

Bob – DRM isn’t about people getting paid.

It’s about control. Control of your playout platform and control of the playback format.

The BBC needs to get it head around this very basic concept – because whoever designs your DRM mechanism therefore decides on what platform you are on and how you can present the media to it.

This is the fundamental problem with the BBC locking it licence fee payers into a closed system.

BUT what the BBC doesn’t recognise is that it isn’t a problem for the licence fee payer but for the BBC itself. You are basically handing over control of a part of the broadcast chain to an outside interest, who may be more concerned with the technological enforcement effort rather than the media experience (i.e. SKY took their on-demand service off the Internet when fairuse4wm cracked Microsoft’s DRM).

It also requires that WHEN the DRM mechanism gets cracked that your must push an updated client to the platform to continue the lock-in. At which point you better pray that your update doesn’t screw around with the platform and break it completely. Not always a guarantee! At which point it becomes a concern for the licence fee payer – but for all the wrong reasons.

A DRM solution is possible, but only one that starts with the rights of the individual being respected and protected.

Any DRM solution I am aware of has protecting the content at it’s core – and assumes that all those who come in contact with it are, by default, thieves. Not a very BBC message to be sending to those who pay our wages.

Cory – I would guess the BBC people involved in the podcast are more interested in starting a debate on the DRM issue than defending it and kudos to them for getting it off to a lively start.

Posted by: Michael Walsh | February 13, 2007 at 11:43 PM

All the broadcasters (SKY, Channel4, BBC, etc.) have made the same mistake (or tried to do it on the cheap – choose your phrase) and drunk the kool-aid on P2P.

DRM is merely reflective of the rightsholders fear of the underlying technology.

– By using a peer-to-peer system the broadcasters have lost control of their content.
– The rightsholders recognise that this superdistribution model is fundamentally different from the broadcast model, in terms of scarce resources, content reproduction and control.
– DRM is seen as the panacea.

Spectrum is a scarce resource. There is a limited number of channels broadcasting a broad church of content. With peer-to-peer, as long as one person is willing to host the content then you can have, in effect, a dedicated channel to Doctor_Who.S03E11.MP4, The_Blue_Planet.S01E05.MP4, etc.

With the broadcast model, the broadcaster pumps out the content and moves on. What the person watching does with the content is not part of the pact the broadcasters have with the rightsholders. In a non-Internet world, reproduction on a global scale required a large capital investment. This meant a limited number of broadcasters with whom the rightsholders negotiated. This is no longer the case. Content reproduction and distribution just got “pwned” by the masses. Copyright law is not capable, at the moment, of dealing with the DRM-free P2P model. Rightsholders have no means of dealing with this new model and so seek to impose a technological control solution on top of the new distribution architecture.

So DRM is seen as a means of restricting content reproduction and imposing control on the distribution – in effect creating an artificial scarce resource.

The mistake the broadcasters have made is in believing in the underlying P2P technology without fully getting buy-in from the rightsholders (and a change copyright law – a task best left to the “pirates” who won’t get sued out of extinction). DRM and cross-platform issues are merely manifestations of the underlying issues.

There are other technological solutions to replace P2P. I believe this will happen. We will then look back on this period as a glorious failure by the broadcasters in trying one technology, which was ultimately supplanted by a better technological solution (cf Baird’s 240 line broadcasts versus Marconi’s 405 line system).

Posted by: Michael Walsh , July 15, 2007

P2P systems aren’t going away – but neither are the legal problems associated with them. In the end, the technological compromises to meet the legal obligations (which the BBC must comply with) simply make them the wrong platform, in my opinion, on which to distribute your content.

Posted by: Michael Walsh , July 15, 2007
Having said all the above, Ian Betteridge comes along and makes the case that the BBC has been regulated out of the innovation market – so there may well be a better technological solution – it just may not be coming from the BBC.

Posted by: Michael Walsh , July 15, 2007

Part II 

Mark Mulligan touches on a legitimate P2P issue

Jupiter’s London office broadband connectivity has been really poor recently and after some trouble shooting by our IT guys the problem was traced to a colleague’s computer. It turns out that she had Channel 4’s Kontiki powered, p-to-p based 4OD application installed on her machine and that it was busy distributing content without her knowing. Fair enough you might say, that’s how supra-distribution works. However she had turned off the application and according to her system tray it wasn’t even running. If an application had been turned off, it should be exactly that: ‘off’, not running, hidden in the background. You’d expect that of malware, not from a national broadcaster.

This is in microcosm what must be happening in many UK households now, and is what will happen on a much larger scale should / when BBC’s Kontiki powered iPlayer launch(es). Many households will find their broadband speeds drastically reduced and others will end up using up their monthly data limits without knowingly having downloaded any content. If consumers aren’t adequately briefed / warned of the implications of installing P-to-P software the BBC may find itself surfing a massive swell of popular discontent.

Peer-to-Peer technology – a confession.


Time to confess.


Peer-to-Peer (P2P) technology.

I have commented on a Guardian blog on IPTV and admitted my confusion with the technology.

To restate here:

As someone (who) “just can’t get it into their “terminally thick brain”” how wonderful p2p is to distribute media content, may I ask how you deal with the following in a decentralised network as a broadcaster:

1. Those who use it for downloads and don’t share uploads.
2. Traffic-shaping by ISPs
3. Multitudes of p2p clients competeing for resources on the host machine.
4. Others on a network competeing (sic) against p2p clients for upstream bandwidth.
5. Compromised clients “poisoning the well”.
6. Compromised clients breaking the OS.

With BT moving to a purely IP based backbone which will allow for native multicasting and the use of Content Delivery Networks there is a more technically robust alternative.