BBC Freeview DRM: The slightly less inflammatory truth

There’s been a fair bit of excitement this morning on Twitter over a story on one of our favourite sites, Boing Boing, claiming the BBC is about to apply DRM to Freeview. The move would prevent equipment from being able to record high-definition TV content unless the set-top box manufacturer has signed a contract with the BBC and is subsequently given access to the encryption keys. As DRM haters, we simply had to investigate, but after a good squint at the Ofcom document (PDF link), we’re fairly sure this isn’t the massive scandal it first appears. 

A good percentage of this fuss has originated from Labour MP Tom Watson, who, in a blog post, claims the BBC’s proposal to add a form of rights management to Freeview would mean every PVR in the land would be rendered obsolete. This is not the case — current PVRs wouldn’t be affected, only those built and designed to handle Freeview HD would need to respect this broadcast flag.

Indeed, this proposal is only going to affect HD broadcasts via Freeview. It applies to the new DVB-T2 standard, which is going to sit on top of existing Freeview channels, which use DVB-T. Nothing here is going to stop your existing equipment from showing and recording SD content. The proposal would bring HD on Freeview alongside HD on freesat, which has a similar broadcast flag to prevent multiple copies being made of a broadcast. On freesat, you’re able to record a programme to a PVR and watch it as much as you like, and keep it for as long as you want. You’re also allowed to make one HD copy on a DRM capable device, such as a Blu-ray recorder.

“We are committed to ensuring that public
service content remains free to air, ie unencrypted,” a BBC spokesperson commented. “However, HD
content holders have begun to expect a degree of content management on
the Freeview HD platform and therefore broadcasters have recognised
that a form of copy protection is needed. We are specifically avoiding
encryption to ensure that the public service content remains free to

Now, don’t get us wrong, we’re against DRM in all of its insidious forms. We think the freesat flag is idiotic — not least because with the Blu-ray DRM broken, recordings made to disc can easily be ripped and re-distributed. DRM on Freeview is even more pointless, because it’s not broadcast outside the UK — whereas freesat is available all across Europe, by virtue of how satellite footprints work. And, of course, there’s a valid argument here that plenty of legitimate uses for HD are made impossible by DRM.

Take, for example, Windows Media Center or other computer-based systems for recording TV programmes for playback later, on a number of devices. It’s very likely that such a flag would render such systems incapable of recording TV shows in HD. SD would be unaffected, but we don’t think it’s acceptable to block legitimate use of HD for in-home use, just because of the potential for piracy.

The BBC has been painted as the culprit here, but the truth of the matter is it’s rights-holders such as movie studios that are insisting on these measures. As usual, Hollywood forgets that by the time the BBC broadcasts a film, it’s already been CAMed in a cinema, ripped from DVD and Blu-ray, shown DRM free on US TV and distributed across the globe on torrent sites, FTP topsites and P2P networks. But Hollywood wants what Hollywood wants, and its ignorance knows almost no bounds.  

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