Criticisms of the BBC's HTML5 DRM Efforts are Off-Base: Commentary

Once again DRM is in the public eye. This time its the BBC's relationship to the HTML5 standardisation process that has triggered some coverage.

I'd like to note that my view is that of a technical facilitator: As a streaming media consultant I will help publishers manage their rights in what ever way they choose (with or without DRM). I believe that, as a publisher, if you want DRM you have a right to use it, and equally if you don't want to use DRM then you also have a right to publish without it, and no one else has a right to tell you what you should choose to do.  

Those who argue about "freedoms" that are lost by introducing DRM sometimes get carried away and seem to seek to inhibit the freedom of rights holders who wish to use such technologies.

I don't believe that as a user of content provided to you by a publisher under some clear terms or "rights of use" (hence the term "rights") that once you accept these, you subsequently have the right to ignore those conditions. As we English would say, "that's simply not cricket."

Ignoring the semantics of legal interpretation of ownership and rights and sticking to the logic that if you take a photo it is "yours," if you write a book it is "yours," and if you make a film it is "yours," and if you sell it then that copy or licensed period of use is determined to belong to the buyer, but if you don't give that buyer permission to sell further copies as if it were theirs then simply make it clear to the buyer that they don't have your permission as the rights owner. Its not a difficult concept. Even for a lawyer.

I do, however also believe that in the frictionless and highly competitive world of the internet, publishers who are too protective about the supply of their content will reduce the demand for it, simply because they will be drowned out by the competition. Given the value of your rights value is a function of both supply and demand; viral "highly demanded" content generates value in many ways over and above the fixed price or royalty derived from the unitary measures traditionally associated with content supply.

With that as prologue, let's look at this BBC story in two ways:

The BBC are trying to drive DRM into HTML5 for their own commercial gain, and using taxpayer money to turn the internet into a copyright maximalist's private, walled garden (which is my interpretation of what Glynn Moody and Cory Doctorow—who are normally commentators worth listening too—seem to be saying in what I would think, in this instance, is an ill-considered and almost "autopilot" reflexive damnation of anything to do with DRM). They are, I would venture, leveraging an association with the BBC to make it a little more "popularist" and exciting, and trying to make those among us who have somehow or other at some point obtained pirate content feel a little less like minor criminals.

On the other hand:

The HTML5 movement is trying to offer the capability for content publishers to extend the basic standards where they have shortcomings, and create their own proprietary capabilities as offshoots from the standard. The BBC is funded by the TV License Fee, which is classified as a tax, and so has a duty to ensure that the rights it licenses on behalf of the taxpayers are usable only by those on whose behalf the rights licenses are agreed. While any DRM technology they add through the Encrypted Media Extensions Proposal will have to allow those tax payers unfettered on-demand access, the notion of DRM technology is there to strive to prevent piracy and distribution of that content into the hands of those who haven't paid the tax.


Well if they don't at least try to apply DRM, then the rights owners who license thier productions to the BBC may look at it that giving content to the BBC for UK licensees/taxpayers to use is also an effective way to give the content to all the BitTorrent and file-sharing users (via those BBC users who re-distribute the content). And when this happens those rights owners find it becomes very difficult to charge any broadcasters in territories out side of the UK for that content, simply because all the audiences of those potential non-UK licensee broadcasters have already seen the content, and it has little or no value to the broadcasters' audiences.

And if those broadcasters do not license the rights from the rights owners then the only way the rights owners can continue to seek investment for production budgets is to show their investors that the only group paying the licenses (the BBC) are going to pay more. The net result is that the BBC needs more funds to buy the content and the price of those licenses increase. This means that the BBC must then either buy less content, or cheaper content, or indeed increase the tax/license fee.

Moody claims that "the BBC wants the power to order your computer to ignore your commands." His question—"How does the BBC justify using the money paid as a non-optional tax by me and my fellow licence-payers to lock us out from content that we have paid for?"—is a bit fanciful, to be honest. Any banking system, using entirely standards-based encryption and security, would also be able to prevent you using your computer to wander into someone else's account and freely redistribute their money. That seems to be utterly sensationalist. And Doctorow's addition is confused. He seems to indicate that the intent of the DRM extension would be that you "couldn't turn it off." He needs to read it and understand it. It actually means you wouldn't be able to turn it ON. So its less a case of (as he says) "I can't let you do that, Dave" and more a case of "If you want to do that, Dave, then you may have to agree to some terms and conditions." If some content producer is going to invest time and money making content, then it is within their rights to lay out some terms and conditions. And if I want to opt in to partaking of that content, it is then my choice if i choose to do so or not.

I simply don't get Moody and Doctorow's dogma that all producers MUST give away for free and create it for a technology medium that is free and open and so on. That is bananas.

The Encrypted Media Extensions Proposal gives HTML5 the provision to enable content providers to freely add whatever capabilities they so desire to extend the browser, and in the context of the BBC, would seem to be both keeping the cost of the license fee down, and ensuring that the tax payer can see the content within the HTML5 context. It actually barely any different from allowing any plug-in architecture, such as allowing a browser to run Flash player or Java.

The BBC are far from a perfect organisation (don't get me started about the effect of the BBC is on the competitive landscape in the UK broadcast market). However they should not be vilified for supporting the capability of adding DRM.

While I don't believe DRM is the panacea to fixing the business models of content rights (in fact, I think it probably inhibits innovation, at least slightly), I strongly believe in the freedom of organisations to use whatever technology they want to use to get the job done.  Trying to make out the BBC as some form of socialist benefactor of content is misguided, sensationalist, and risks discrediting strong and well-made arguments about the risks of DRM.

Make the argument, but don't just shout dystopian criticisms at high-profile targets to try to make yourselves look cool. Let's focus on working together to create a healthy eco-system for producers, distributors and consumers alike.

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