Thursday, June 17, 2010

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ofcom approve BBC's move to attach DRM to HD

Ofcom have sadly approved the BBC's application to add DRM restrictions to their HD signal.

In an open letter to Ofcom and a follow up letter to Michael Lyons, the Chairman of the BBC Trust, Open University academics pointed out why this was a really bad idea for

• licence payers
• the disabled
• UK industry
• innovation
• education

The BBC scheme involves not the scrambling of the audio and video signals themselves but of the accompanying digital instructions for decoding these signals. The 'free' broadcast signal will now merely come locked behind a DRM shield that people will need specially licensed equipment to view. Ofcom's approval of the BBC proposal will undermine the organisation's public service obligations under the BBC Charter, and it is difficult to reconcile Ofcom's repeated past declarations that a broadcast flag DRM regime would be inappropriate for the BBC with the decision now declaring that they approve of it!

The heart of the summary of the decision is at paragraphs 1.5 and 1.6:
"1.5 Our aim in assessing the BBC's proposed licence amendment has been to determine whether this change would deliver net benefits to citizens and consumers by ensuring they have access to the widest possible range of HD television content on DTT, whilst not unduly restricting their ability to make use of content or the range of receiver equipment available in the DTT receiver market.
1.6 In response to the Consultation the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 provided confidential details on the acquired HD content that would be affected if an effective content management framework was not provided on the DTT platform, including the need to 'blank out' some HD content. This evidence was supported by the views expressed by representatives of rights holders. Based on this information, and the increasing use of content management on other digital TV platforms, we have concluded that the BBC's proposal would widen the range of HD content available on the DTT platform, in particular high value film and drama content, and that this would bring positive benefits to citizens and consumers and also help ensure that the DTT platform is able to compete on similar terms with other digital TV platforms for HD content rights."
Now if you read that carefully, it is saying the reason for the decision to approve DRM was that they seriously considered 'confidential', i.e. secret, information provided by BBC, ITV and Channel 4, as well as the story spun by rights holders.  Even in the US where intellectual property privileges are handed out on request like smarties, the regulators rejected such a broadcast flag.  Yet somehow, within a period of less than a year Ofcom goes from being totally opposed to approving of it.

They have completed ignored our representations that such a move:
  • Undermines the BBC's obligations under their charter
  • Discriminates against those those who are visually- and hearing-impaired
  • Does not protect the content of rights holders - that's right it doesn't prevent copyright infringement
  • Undermines backwards compatibility
  • Introduces barriers to education
  • Is anti-competitive
(See the OU letter for details of all of these).

The Communications Act 2003, Part 1, section 3, outlines the General duties of OFCOM:

(1) It shall be the principal duty of OFCOM, in carrying out their functions—
(a) to further the interests of citizens in relation to communications matters; and
(b) to further the interests of consumers in relevant markets, where appropriate by promoting competition.

The Ofcom get out clause for their u-turn on BBC DRM is that "Ofcom's role in relation to content management is limited" (para 1.10).  They have, through this weak excuse, and the BBC DRM decision attempted to avoid their obligations under the Communications Act.  It is completely unacceptable.

The Open Rights Group get it spot on:
Ofcom have also dealt their credibility a serious blow by justifying their decision by saying this “will allow broadcasters to control the multiple copying of HD content and its retransmission over the internet”.
They accepted the spurious argument that HD content may not be provided in the UK without copy protection – despite the fact that unencrypted broadcasts occur in every other major HD market. In addition, the BBC has failed to name a single programme that would be withdrawn without the application of DRM to its broadcast.
Restrictive technologies create two results: they rig markets, removing competition and innovative technologies; and they encourage people to find ways round them. The results will harm competition and will not further either BBC or Ofcom's legitimate aims. But it will bring calls for more restriction once these measures fail.
They have taken a decision which pushes technology further towards a copyright-centric model of control, where only copyright holders have the right to decide how everyday devices are allowed work.
In this new regime, people with hearing problems will be prevented from modifying their equipment to deal with their problems. Software developers will be stopped from making your TV, computer and mobile phone work properly with each other. Your choice of operating system will determine whether or not you can enjoy BBC HD broadcasts to their full extent. And HD devices will have to be built to work in the UK alone, reducing competition and pushing prices up.
Ofcom’s remit is to protect consumer interest and competition. They have failed to do either."
 I believe it is time for the BBC Trust to intervene on the grounds of public interest. Failing that a judicial review and/or recourse to the EU?  This story has only just begun.

(I did make a CamStudio video about my reaction to the decision earlier this morning but there are odd audio synchronisation problems with it - the audio and video are initially in sync but gradually the video gets further and further ahead of the audio.  There's a cumulative offsetting problem but I've haven't been able to locate the source of it.  If anyone has any ideas I'd appreciate it.  I'm using CamStudio lossless codec 1.4 compression; playback rate 25 frames/sec, frame capture every 41 milliseconds; MPEG layer 3 audio compressed format, video & audio interleave 41 milliseconds; and 44.1 kHz, mono, 16-bit recording format.)

Update: I've amended the link to our letter above because Ofcom have moved it to