Open source Brits charge BBC with foul play

The UK's Open Source Consortium has filed an official complaint against the BBC and its partners in Project Canvas, the joint venture designing a proprietary standard for Internet media players.

The Canvas confederacy, which includes the most prominent of the UK's terrestrial television broadcasters - the BBC, Channel 4 , Channel 5 and ITV - has already attracted complaints from rival broadcasters Sky and Virgin Media.

Now they've been joined by the OSC, which lodged a complaint this weekend to UK telecommunications regulator Ofcom, on behalf of the computer industry.

The OSC told Ofcom that Project Canvas would drive an anti-competitive wedge into the market for computer operating systems and media software.

Gerry Gavigan, chair of the OSC, told Ofcom that by controlling the broadcast of the most popular TV programmes on the internet, the Canvas consortium would lock their viewers into using only those computer platforms to which their media player had been ported.

It's what's known as the 'parallel markets' effect, in which decisions made by dominant companies in one market control the options available to consumers in another.

When it comes to internet media players this would mean, for example, that someone settling down in front of their computer to watch a night of TV favourites such as the BBC's Dr Who, ITV's Coronation Street, Channel 4 News and Channel 5's Footballers' Wives, could only do so if they were using a compatible operating system.

The OSC fears immediately for the fate of the Linux operating system, as well as independent producers of software media players.

The issue has become an important one, since the digital convergence of computers and broadcast media has given organisations with cultural clout the power to define technological standards that have repercussions in the computer industry.

"While the OSC recognises the merits of digital convergence, this convergence should not be allowed to happen in a manner in which dominant players in one market create externalities and distortions by tying in parallel markets," said Gavigan in the OSC complaint.

He cited the example of Microsoft, which was fined $1.4bn by the European Commission in 2008 for tying its Windows Media Player into its Windows operating system and refusing to supply compatibility information to rival makers of server software.

Virgin Media's complaint to Ofcom last month claimed that Project Canvas would create a proprietary standard for internet TV which was so powerful that rivals would be forced to use it. The complaint also took Canvas to task for claiming it supported open standards.

"Far from their stated objectives of creating a set of open standards for the delivery of next generation TV which anyone can adopt, the joint venture partners are creating a proprietary closed platform which they control," a Virgin spokesman told THINQ.

The Canvas broadcast members (BBC, ITV, Channel 4) account for two-thirds of all television watched in the UK, according to Virgin. Its telecoms members (BT and Talk Talk) between them represent over half of all UK broadband customers.

The Canvas player proposes to control the way media players receive, process and relay the TV signal. The confederacy is seeking to lock out media players that do not meet its requirements for the quality of their video and the way they brand the programmes they play.

The OSC believes that the Canvas consortium should contribute to the development of an open standard for the broadcast of TV programmes on the internet. Such a move would allow anyone to produce an internet TV player that would play anyone's broadcast TV signal on any operating system they like.

United for Local Television, IP Vision and Six TV have also complained that Project Canvas should be open.