Is the BBC’s iplayer changes, pushing developers towards the dark net?

XBMC media centre

So to remind everyone, this is my blog and not the view of my employer (the BBC). If you’ve not seen the outbreak about the iplayer stream changes then I can recommend the BBC Backstage post and the internet blog post. You will see they both link to the register piece which highlighted the problems people are having.

Here’s the Register’s summary of the whole thing.

The BBC has quietly updated its hugely popular iPlayer with a verification layer that closes the door on open source implementations of RTMP (real-time messaging protocol) streaming, The Register has learned.

The Beeb applied the update to its online video catch-up service on 18 February, just four days after Adobe Systems penned a corporate blog post about its “content protection offerings”.

The tweak means that free RTMP plugins offered by the likes of the XBMC community – whose code is based on the GNU General Public Licence (sic) v2* – can no longer stream iPlayer content. The latest iteration of XBMC’s plugin was created in May last year and was being used by UK viewers to play TV and radio catch-up content from the BBC’s iPlayer service. adds to this…

While we understand the BBC’s reasoning for the decision, we surely don’t agree with it. Add to that, a publicly funded media organization has far more obligations than a typical private one.

XBMC could easily be modified in a way that would allow playback of the streams, though it could never be included in the official binaries due to the wretched DMCA.

We hope that news of this change spreads quickly. Feel free to submit this story as well as the one from The Register to your favorite news sites. If anyone from the BBC would like to engage in a public discussion, we would very much welcome it; see our contact page for details. Also, be sure to take their online survey and tell them how you feel. Remember, this change affects far more than an XBMC plugin… all open-source BBC playback implementations are at stake.

*librtmp, the library used to access these streams, uses the lgpl license.

So to be clear, I also understand the reasoning but disagree with the need for this change. This change is easily fixable/hackable/reversed but doing so would break the DMCA or EUCD. So this is a very difficult position to be in because the change is forcing the hand of the developers to do something illegal. Now most of the developers don’t and won’t do it but there are those who don’t give a flying monkey for the law and will easily reverse whatever Adobe creates in the form of DRM. This is why there is such a outrage by most people who understand the situation fully. Verification layer protection is a joke, but a really bad joke which you can’t get rid off by simply shuffling it out the front door. Cory always says…

DRM only affects people who buy media honestly, rather those who nick, borrow or cheat their way to it. In turn that means that the people who ultimately bear the inconvenience, cost and insult of DRM are the paying customers, not the pirates.

And he’s right. The people who are most effected by Verification Layer are those who are the fans watching iplayer streams on their XBMC boxes at home with there friends and family. Worst still they are already license fee payers and early adopters who the BBC really should be spending more time with instead of marking them down as a irrelevant group. This group are very vocal and have the ability to really make the BBC’s future a living hell if its not very careful.

I’ve already seen evidence of a application which strips iplayer of all its content in a slightly questionable way being pushed as a replacement for XBMC’s iplayer script. Its worth noting this application which I won’t link to worked before the change and still works after the change, in actual fact there was no interruption to its service! And if you think thats questionable, I’m sure the usage of BBC content in Bit Torrent, Rapidshare, usenet, etc went flying through the roof as people scrambled back to the dark net to watch there shows. I do wish there was a way to prove this in numbers, just to show how much streaming from the BBC was having an affect on the dark net.

So where do we go from here?

Will the BBC ever turn off Verification layer? Honestly I doubt it and as Adobe creates even more technical hurdles they will also be added. Its a real shame because as we’ve already explored they only effect those who care enough to get there content from the BBC iplayer. Adobe’s measures have no ground in the dark net.

The Trust survey is very important, as that has a massive effect on what the BBC can and cannot do. So its very important that everyone takes part in the survey. Its also worth writing blog entries and telling more people about the issue. This doesn’t only effect xbmc but also all those mobile clients and other media centres. There’s been a lot of comments at the register, iplayer forums, internetblog, backstage forum and backstage blog but not nearly enough posts and twitters.

Finally the BBC needs to talk openly about this stuff, if it was announced this was coming and explained then I honestly I think the BBC wouldn’t get the kickback there getting now. Look at the iplayer forum, who on earth blamed the iplayer RSS terms and conditions for this problem? Yes I’ve been talking to the guys at XBMC and other projects, the BBC needs to build bridges with these communities and at least have a conversation about this stuff. No promises just conversation.