I protested BBC iPlayer in 2007, and I don’t regret it.

During the summer holidays of 2007, I was a teenage sailing instructor who was volunteering locally, to teach younger teens how to sail (better) for a week.

On Tuesday, I skived off teaching, jumped on a train to Manchester and changed my life forever.


But that’s not the beginning… A few months earlier I was prowling the school library looking for anything to dull the boredom of actually studying when I stuck my nose in the computer section, and found that, for some reason, they had a copy of Free As In Freedom, a biography of Richard Stallman.

In the book, Sam Williams, the author, interviews Stallman a number of times, and explores the backgrounds to his principled stances with regards to software.

In spring 2007, I ran Ubuntu and Windows XP in dual boot and so I found it very relevant to my interests and persuasive.


One weekend, I was reading The Register, and I saw a headline…

Free Software Foundation plans protests at ‘corrupt’ BBC

The article explained that planning protests outside the BBC headquarters in London and
“outside the corporation’s Manchester offices on Tuesday, 14 August.”

My ears pricked up…


At this point, you might be thinking:

iPlayer? You protested against iPlayer? Why? iPlayer is awesome.

Let’s go back to 2007.

When the BBC announced iPlayer with a fanfare it was to be:

  • Internet Explorer only, Windows-based peer to peer service
  • where you downloaded a DRM’d Windows media file
  • and the DRM meant you could only watch it for 30 days.

To make the perception of a dotCom era Microsoft: “embrace, extend, extinguish” even worse, Ashley Highfield, the BBC manager in charge of delivering it was an ex-Microsoft exec. Small world eh?


When pressed about the lack of cross platform support, the BBC said:

“It is not possible to put an exact timeframe on when BBC iPlayer will be available for Mac users. However, we are working to ensure this happens as soon as possible and the BBC Trust will be monitoring progress on a six monthly basis.”

To be it seemed incredible, that in 2007, our national broadcaster could release a platform that I was unable to use without a Windows operating system and to exclude Mac, Linux and emerging mobile platforms – it just seemed such a massive strategic error on the BBC’s part.

And I kept thinking

“I really like the idea… Just not the implementation. Not this implementation.”


I barely knew Manchester, and even getting from Piccadilly Station to the Oxford Road BBC building seemed like a large challenge to me. I’d never been to a protest before, I’d never spoken to any techies who weren’t family, friends or classmates, and I was somewhat terrified. I had no idea what to expect.

The protest itself was actually relatively low key – the concept was that DRM was defective by design, and by extension so was iPlayer. So we stood outside the BBC in hazmat suits, with placards, and handed out leaflets to passersby.

BBC iPlayer, Defective By Design Protest outside BBC Oxford Road in Manchester by Matt Lee (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

BBC iPlayer, Defective By Design Protest outside BBC Oxford Road in Manchester by Matt Lee (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Afterwards, we retired across the road, to the upstairs of Odder Bar; for me this seemed like the first criteria for success: it appeared that no-one had been arrested, or hurt.


The protest had been organised by Matt Lee with help from Noah Slater, and as a result I became involving in the first days of Manchester Free Software group, and started hanging out and demonstrating naive youthfulness in various related IRC channels.

The first talk I went to was about hosting and free software and was by Matthew Bloch of Bytemark Hosting… Hmmmm.


As a direct result of getting to know people, Noah first gifted me the tdobson.net domain, and Matt gave a xen VM on his Bytemark dedicated server to play with for a while.

I continued to debate BBC iPlayer strategy on the BBC Backstage mailing list, I made friends with Dave Crossland and Ian Forrester, and as a result, later on I ended up contracting for the BBC and living with Ian.. but that’s another story.

In addition, I started to discover the other emerging communities in Manchester, I remember dragging myself to the “BSD User Group” – essentially a drinking club with jolly good taste for pubs, Geekup, currybeer and my first barcamp of many more.


And BBC iPlayer?

After some drama where Ashley Highfield annoyed Linux users some more, and I suggested he talk to Groklaw, and he did, they quickly put together a compromise: a streaming solution via Adobe Flash.

By January 2008, the Register was reporting:

The BBC’s Flash-based streaming service has gifted a massive traffic boost to the iPlayer site since it went live in mid-December, independent figures have revealed.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a project that was floundering a few months back. The DRM-timebombed and buggy P2P version limped into the limelight in summer 2007 after years of troubled development.

It had attracted consternation from Apple, Linux and Windows Firefox users, who were shut out by the use of Microsoft DRM, despite being the people most likely to be early adopters of new net services.

The cross platform iPlayer you know and love is the great grandson of this service.

I like to think my criticism of the implementation helped iPlayer achieve the success, just much like the BBC’s initially poor choice of platform, helped me find my feet in the world of technology.

3 Responses to “ I protested BBC iPlayer in 2007, and I don’t regret it. ”

  1. Isn’t iPlayer still DRM and won’t run on a fully free software system though?

  2. While I admire the motivation, it seems you protested what was little more than a beta release for the very crime of being a beta release.

  3. Interesting post about a small but important part of history. Thankyou :) I guess those needing DRM-free at least have get_iplayer as a workaround for now but it’s galling to be treated as second class.
    Incidentally, the iTunes store rating for iPlayer has sunk from 4.5 to 2 stars since the update this week. Obviously nobody realised that users don’t want separate apps for TV and radio. Classic fail and all the worse when the radio app is just ported iphoneware. Will the BBC take note, do you think?

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