BBC to add copy protection to HD broadcasts

Broadcasting watchdog Ofcom has given the BBC a green light to cripple High-Definition broadcasts with copy protection.

The ruling will restrict access to broadcast Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) data to only those High Definition (HD) Digital Terrestrial (DTT) receivers which include content management technology.

The BBC argued that, without the restrictions, the ability of broadcasters on the Freeview HD platform to secure content from third-party rights holders on similar terms to those on other platforms would be reduced, limiting the range of broadcast content available.

After a period of consultation which began in September 2009, Ofcom 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."

Ofcom also considered whether the amendment would have an effect on the cost hardware, as manufacturers would be forced to create new set-top boxes and the like specifically for the UK market.

"We have concluded this would not be the case," Ofcom said in a statement. "The BBC is proposing to licence the intellectual property required to gain access to the HD EPG data free of charge and major receiver and integrated digital TV manufacturers are including content management in their HD Freeview products. Hence the impact of the BBC proposals on the supply of receivers to the mass market is negligible."

Ofcom admitted that it had received "a large number" of individual responses to the Consultation saying that 'open source' software developers would be unable to develop receivers that access HD EPG data if they had to take a licence from the BBC in order to access it.

But the organisation dismissed these responses, saying, "We do not fully share this view. The BBC proposals do not prohibit the use of open source software in receivers, but we recognise the proposal may introduce some restrictions on how it is used. We anticipate that any such restrictions will have a negligible impact on the mass market for HD Freeview receivers as many manufacturers do not use open source software and in cases where they do can opt for an open source licence which is compatible with the BBC's proposed licensing arrangements."

Digital campaigners The Open Rights Group have a different take on the the change of policy.

The organisation's spokesman Jim Hillock said, Ofcom had "dealt a serious blow to UK consumers and licence-payers by allowing the BBC to impose DRM for HD broadcasts."

He claimed the decision would "force them to buy non-standard equipment that may only work in the UK. 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, and despite the fact that the BBC never named a single programme that would be withdrawn unless it was allowed to cripple its broadcasts with DRM."

Killock maintains that the kind of restrictive technologies proposed by the BBC and Ofcom create two results: they rig markets, removing competition and innovative technologies; and they encourage people to find ways around them.

"The results will harm competition and will not have the results that the BBC and Ofcom want. 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 properly working with each other. Your choice of operating system will become a choice that may mean you cannot enjoy BBC HD broadcasts to their full extent. And HD devices will have to built to work in the UK alone, reducing competition and pushing prices up."

Ofcom says that the decision to accept the BBC's request will deliver net benefits to citizens and consumers by ensuring they have access to the widest possible range of HD television content on DTT. Killock thinks otherwise.

"Ofcom’s remit is to protect consumer interest and competition. They have failed to do either," he concluded.