Digital rights mismanagement

The BBC is struggling to implement its DRM strategy. It is increasingly hard to see why it's bothering at all

There is no more piquant example of the damage digital rights management can do than the BBC. A first-tier public-service broadcaster charged with serving the public, it has always been keen to use the internet to extend its reach and improve its service. It has also been grimly slashing away at its own world-class research team, leaving it more susceptible to outside influences.

One result has been the uncertain and much delayed deployment of the iPlayer, the video-on-demand system by which the BBC hopes to retain the growing tribe of laptop viewers. The arguments for and against DRM are too tedious to recapitulate here: let's look at the facts. The beta iPlayer uses Microsoft's DRM, and it's not been working too well — especially when compared with the very popular and unencumbered Listen Again radio service.

For a start, threats of taking the BBC to Europe to force a more open approach have been enough to get the corporation back around the table with open-format advocates. The promise of a rolling six-monthly review isn't good enough to placate those upset by the BBC forcing viewers to adopt one particular platform.

Then, if you look at the beta program's discussion forum, you'll find that many of the problems reported have been problems with DRM. Licences aren't delivered properly. Authentication fails. Changes in people's systems upset the (non-Apple) cart.

Then, the DRM behind iPlayer has just been broken. All the restrictions imposed — a 28-day window within which to start watching, seven days before the content then disappears, and no watching of content on any other computer — can be circumvented with one drag, one click. The reaction of beta testers polled by has been one of considerable relief and enthusiasm: not because they want to sell DVDs down the Dog and Duck, but because they want to watch their programmes on the move, on their Xboxes, on their PowerBooks.

Not that any of the above matters. Most of the BBC's output is already available as torrents, at considerably higher quality than the quite badly degraded official output. The corporation's not alone, of course: everyone's there, regardless of DRM.

The BBC should ask itself whether the delays, expense and embarrassment caused by DRM are outweighed by the benefits. In 10 years' time, will this really be the way things will work? What has it gained by following other people's rules, instead of listening to its viewers?

It doesn't work; it makes things worse; we don't want it. How much more proof is needed?



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