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

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 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.

The pragmatic view on why DRM’d media will slowly die out

I recently read the article on BoingBoing about the Hachette publisher being upset that some of it’s authors who were also using the Tor publisher in different territories, would be releasing their works DRM-free.

I also saw some defence that stated that “the Hachette sales strategy with DRM works really well”.

Let me explain why I don’t think that DRM is a long term solution.

If you model this media market against the first days of the ipod/itunes store:

When people buy into the “device and store” idea, they’re ambivalent about DRM because it doesn’t really affect them.”

As commodity devices emerge and people are able to buy ~£30 no name devices that more or less, just work, then the consumers start to find DRM a significant barrier to painlessly consumpting media and may acquire media from “other” sources. (The commodity devices without DRM will be cheaper than commodity devices with DRM).

Once a sizeable market is regularly circumventing the DRM, either with software or acquiring the content from other sources

At the point when a significant audience exists with commodity devices which don’t support DRM who are unable to legitimating consume the media they want, publishers can make a decision about whether the benefits they see in DRM, are worth not monetising the market on commodity devices…

At that point, many publishers will point out that DRM costs them money and inconveniences their consumers.

Unfortunately, from a PR point of view, this means that early adopters of commodity devices are always going to feel the publishers are being obstructive, whilst the publishers go after the largest slice of the market at that point in the emerging market.

In my opinion, the key to DRM-free media, is a large number of people using commodity devices, that don’t support it.

What you’re seeing on Boing Boing is that Tor’s readers are generally early adopters of commodity technology, whilst Hachette’s are still more tied into the “one device, one brand, one store” ideology. I’d guess that, as that changes, so will their stances on DRM.

Real World DRM

Ben Griffiths wrote to the Open Rights Group discussion mailing list a few weeks ago:

I want to share a DRM story.

I was in Curry’s in Plymouth a couple of weeks ago. A man was arguing loudly with one of the staff, his ten-year old daughter in tears at his side. From what I could gather, she had saved up her pocket money to buy an iTunes gift card – the songs she’d spent her money on, of course, didn’t work on her mp3 player.
The man wanted a refund for what seemed to him a defective product; the staff member said that if the card had been used they couldn’t give a refund.
The young girl cried and cried and cried.

The altercation went on for at least 15 minutes – the store manager eventually having to call some security chaps to remove him, but not before phoning the police.

So, whose fault was this?

Currys for selling a card without making it clear that some songs downloaded from iTunes wouldn’t work on some (!) mp3 players?
The girl for not understanding the complicated world of DRM?
iTunes for selling DRM music?
The record company for not selling DRM-free music?
The government for not requiring labelling of DRM-crippled products?

Who knows – I’m pretty sure the only person clearly free of blame was
the little girl.

But, perhaps that’s the wrong question – the end result was a stand- p shouting match, someone manhandled out of a store, a staff-member threatened and frightened, and a little girl in tears having spent her pocket money on something that didn’t work.

I thought it was worth sharing this since sometimes we can get bound up thinking about piracy and digital distribution and so on, but these small stories are often missed.


I found this very moving and touching.
This is obviously something that could happen to many people we know.
Do you know someone who is just making their first tentative steps on the computer? Yes that’s the person it’s going to catch out.

Someone buys an eeePC. They phones up Xandros and yells at the support guy for 4OD not working… or just takes it back to Currys….