net.wars: Public broadcasting

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 12 September 2009

It’s not so long ago – 2004, 2005 – that the BBC seemed set to be the shining champion of the Free World of Content, functioning in opposition to *AA (MPAA, RIAA) and general entertainment industry desire for total content lockdown. It proposed the Creative Archive; it set up BBC Backstage; and it released free recordings of the classics for download.

Wendy M Grossman

But the Creative Archive released some stuff and then ended the pilot in 2006, apparently because much of the BBC’s content doesn’t really belong to it. And then came the iPlayer. The embedded DRM, along with its initial Windows-only specification (though the latter has since changed), made the BBC look like less of a Free Culture hero.

Now, via the consultative offices of Ofcom we learn that the BBC wants to pacify third-party content owners by configuring its high-definition digital terrestrial services – known to consumers as Freeview HD – to implement copy protection. This request is, of course, part of the digital switchover taking place across the country over the next four years.

The thing is, the conditions under which the BBC was granted the relevant broadcasting licences require that content be broadcast free-to-air. That is, unencrypted, which of course means no copy protection. So the BBC’s request is to be allowed instead to make the stream unusable to outsiders by compressing the service information data using in-house-developed lookup tables. Under the proposal, the BBC will make those tables available free of charge to manufacturers who agree to its terms. Or, pretty clearly, the third party rights holders’ terms.

This is the kind of hair-splitting the American humorist Jean Kerr used to write about when she detailed conversations with her children. She didn’t think, for example, to include in the long list of things they weren’t supposed to do when they got up first on a Sunday morning, the instruction not to make flour paste and glue together all the pages of the Sunday New York Times. “Now, of course, I tell them.”

When the BBC does it, it’s not so funny. Nor is it encouraging in the light of the broader trend toward claiming intellectual property protection in metadata when the data itself is difficult to restrict. Take, for example, the MTA’s Metro-North Railroad, which runs commuter trains (on which Meryl Streep and Robert de Niro so often met in the 1984 movie Falling in Love) from New York City up both sides of the Hudson River to Connecticut. MTA has been issuing cease-and-desist orders to the owner of StationStops a Web site and iPhone schedule app dedicated to the Metro-North trains, claiming that it owns the intellectual property rights in its scheduling data. If it were in the UK, the Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign would be all over it.

In both cases – and many others – it’s hard to understand the originating organisation’s complaint. Metro-North is in the business of selling train tickets; the BBC is supposed to measure its success in

  • the number of people who consume its output;
  • the educational value of its output to the licence fee-paying public. Promulgating schedule data can only help Metro-North, which is not a commercial company but a public benefit corporation owned by the State of New York. It’s not going to make much from selling data licences.
  • The BBC’s stated intention is to prevent perfect, high-definition copies of broadcast material from escaping into the hands of (evil) file-sharers. The alternative, it says, would be to amend its multiplex licence to allow it to encrypt the data streams. Which, they hasten to add, would require manufacturers to amend their equipment, which they certainly would not be able to do in time for the World Cup next June. Oh, the horror!

    Fair enough, the consumer revolt if people couldn’t watch the World Cup in HD because their equipment didn’t support the new encryption standard would indeed be quite frightening to behold. But the BBC has a third choice: tell rights holders that the BBC is a public service broadcaster, not a policeman for hire.

    Manufacturers will still have to modify equipment under the more “modest” system information compression scheme: they will have to have a licence. And it seems remarkably unlikely that licences would be granted to the developers of open source drivers or home-brew devices such as Myth TV, and of course it couldn’t be implemented retroactively in equipment that’s already on the market. How many televisions and other devices will it break in your home?

    Up until now, in contrast to the US situation, the UK’s digital switchover has been pretty gentle and painless for a lot of people. If you get cable or satellite, at some point you got a new set-top box (mine keep self-destructing anyway); if you receive all your TV and radio over the air you attached a Freeview box. But this is the broadcast flag and the content management agenda all over again.

    We know why rights holders want this. But why should the BBC adopt their agenda? The BBC is the best-placed broadcasting and content provider organisation in the world to create a parallel, alternative universe to the strictly controlled one the commercial entertainment industry wants. It is the broadcaster that commissioned a computer to educate the British public. It is the broadcaster that belongs to the people.

    Reclaim your heritage, guys.

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    Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).