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The BBC iPlayer Controversy Explained

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The BBC will soon launch their TV download service, iPlayer. Somewhat paradoxically, they have chosen to use Microsoft's DRM in this service, raising complaints — and a lawsuit — from the Open Source community. David Chisnall explains why using Microsoft DRM is a bad idea for the BBC on several levels.

At the end of July, the British Broadcasting Corporation plans on releasing its new "iPlayer" service, which will make TV shows available for download within the UK. Some controversy surrounds this launch, including a lawsuit from the Open Source Consortium.

The core of the controversy is the fact that the iPlayer system is built atop DRM supplied by Microsoft (somewhat ironically for a product that appears to be trying to leverage Apple's mind share with its choice of name). The effect of this is to lock the player to the Windows operating system.

This wouldn't be such an issue for most broadcasters, but as BBC advertisements constantly state, things are slightly different for them "due to the unique way in which [they] are funded." The BBC is funded from a license fee collected from everyone who owns equipment capable of receiving a broadcast television signal. In recent years, this has been expanded to include computers used to receive simulcast streams.

Due to this funding mechanism, the BBC is free from concerns of profitability. They are not beholden to investors or shareholders. They are, however, required to abide by a charter. This includes aims such as (from the latest version of the charter):

  • Promoting education and learning.
  • Stimulating creativity and cultural excellence.
  • In promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services and, in addition, taking a leading role in the switchover to digital television.

There is some debate as to whether distributing content encumbered with Microsoft DRM falls within the bounds of the last of these points (Public Purpose "f," for anyone following at home).

Illegal Monopoly Abuse

In March 2004, the European Commission fined Microsoft for monopoly abuse. The judgment claimed that Microsoft:

The media player in question included Microsoft's own video and audio compression algorithms, file formats, and DRM. While the rest of the judgment was somewhat toothless (requiring Microsoft to offer a version of Windows without Windows Media Player), the fine indicates the seriousness of this breach.

The basis for the judgment was that Microsoft was using its dominant share of the market for desktop operating systems to push its way into other markets. By bundling their own media system with their operating system, they could immediately (via Windows Update) ensure that it was installed on the vast majority of desktop computers. This made life very difficult for their competitors, since it meant that users had to install extra software to use their product, but got Microsoft's (for free) without doing anything.

Interestingly, the rationale given by the BBC for choosing Microsoft as a supplier of DRM was that they have the majority of the desktop computer market share. Apparently they weren't listening when the EC handed down their verdict. If the iPlayer deployment goes ahead as planned, this will further help cement Microsoft's monopoly in this market. Their product is installed on most desktop PCs due to bundling, and now people wanting to build other devices that support the iPlayer will also have to license the formats from Microsoft.

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