11 May 2010

BBC and the iPlayer

Since 2007, the BBC has implemented an on-demand TV and Radio service, iPlayer, which aimed to provide BBC content over the web. Whilst the move to this has been broadly welcomed, there is also a growing criticism that BBC has not stuck to its promise to be 'platform-neutral', and in recent times the technology behind it has become increasingly locked-down, favouring Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and proprietary software as a delivery method (Adobe Flash).

Part of the technology used was something called Real Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP), and without getting too detailed, this splits video and audio data into fragments to help ensure the smooth viewing and listening. As much of this technology was reliant upon users having Adobe technology installed, an open-source version, RTMPDump was created and hosted by Sourceforge.

RTMPDump was a principle part of a fantastic bit of free software called get_iplayer which enabled people to search and record BBC TV and Radio. The TV one would convert the streams into a file that could be played anytime, whilst with radio, it would convert any BBC radio to MP3 - essentially making all BBC radio like a podcast.

Adobe got pissed off at this and threw their toys out of the pram. They used the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) to call for RTMPDump to be removed, as they saw it as circumventing Digital Restrictions Management. This was a bit of an arse, but it didn't stop people from finding versions of it hosted elsewhere, and anyway, in the UK, BBC stuff is broadcast, free-to-air, so no biggie, right?

Wrong. In February 2010, the Beeb introduced something called a SWF verification layer, which essentially prevented people implementing open-source versions of the protocol used, so despite much of iPlayer technology coming from the free and open source community, the BBC decided to slap them in the face by locking them out.

This was the final straw for the developer behind get_iplayer, and he made his thoughts clear in this post, saying:

"The BBC iPlayer is built on many open-source products and yet, in this case, they have failed to let open-source clients access the very same service. The BBC have clearly not followed the spirit of open-source here."

Thankfully, if you know where to look, get_iplayer is still available (it uses a fork of RTMPDump called flvstreamer, which has the Adobe's 'offending' parts removed). Its a bit slower now at getting TV streams, but it creeps along.

Essentially, license fee money now goes to subsidising Adobe. Hurrah for the BBC charter.

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