Monday, 5 October 2009

Freeview Retune Day Part II

The second part of Dave Woods’ report on last week’s Freeview retune. Part I is immediately below.

At present the restrictions on Freeview HD seem pretty modest. As Graham Plumb, the BBC’s head of distribution technology explains, ‘Even in its most restrictive state [the system] still allows one HD copy to be made to Blu-ray […] (and for most content there will be no restriction whatsoever on the number of Blu-ray copies permitted)’. This hardly seems like the end of the world, then. (A less well known consequence is that if your set top box dies so do your recordings because they are paired with that particular box, but again this is only going to be a rare occurrence.) So why are the critics getting so heated? There are two recurring reasons. First, attempts to close distribution systems in the name of protecting content holders’ interests are identified with a stifling of creativity and competition. As Danny O’Brien puts it elsewhere,
It was the very lack of control by big media over what citizens plugged into their TV aerials that got us video-recorders, video rental stores and digital video recorders. With a pre-emptive veto, no broadcaster or movie company would have ever let those happen. In fact, the movie companies sued to have VCRs banned in the US. Yet it was those innovations that led to movie rental stores, a widening of ‘prime time’ and a vibrant TV industry.
In particular, open source solutions—a prime source of technological innovation that has more complex relationships with capitalism than conventional, proprietary rights-based production—would be outlawed.

The second issue is a consequence of the first. Critics point out that once the viewer’s control over their own media use is in principle taken out of their hands, other perhaps more invasive types of control become possible, such as disabling the skipping of adverts and the automatic deletion of recordings after a set time. It’s important to be clear that there is no hint of such measures in the current proposal, but the critics are arguing for the long term. After all, probably all mainstream TV will be HD one day; whatever is set in place now will have lasting effects upon the public broadcasting landscape. And that landscape looks set to be one where Ofcom effectively cedes control to rights owners to specify what sorts of technology will be allowed to develop, and what sorts of restrictions they will require and be able to impose. In this context, the fact that, as Paidcontent puts it, ‘it’s taken just 21 days to go from broadcaster request to the end of a public consultation’, does look somewhat precipitate. Writing in The Guardian online, anti-DRM campaigner Cory Doctorow puts it in perhaps extreme terms:
The BBC's cosy negotiation with big rightsholders and offshore manufacturers excluded the public and the free/open source software community – the very groups that blew the whistle on previous attempts to lock up the public airwaves. It's almost as though it wanted to limit the "stakeholders" in the room to people who wouldn't cause any trouble, so that it could present Ofcom with a neat and tidy agreement with no dissenting voices.
Trying to step back from the detail, of course none of the above is to say that content holders don’t have a legitimate interest in protecting their rents and that piracy doesn’t have real consequences. Nevertheless, a familiar pattern I’ve found in other new media forms seems to be playing out once again. On the one hand, large media corporations or bodies representing them lobby, predict industry collapse and threaten boycotts to secure their media content. They propose DRM as a means of doing so. Their actions provoke more or less well founded suspicion on the part of critics such as Robert McChesney who points to ever-increasing concentration of media ownership and the power that accrues therewith, or Kembrew McLeod who highlights the overweening ambitions of rights owners to extend control over their content. On the other, as outlined above, DRM—least of all the token version of it proposed here—doesn’t prevent illegal uploads and thus downloads. It does however make greater or lesser impositions on ‘normal’ users, who may thus become motivated to explore ways of getting around them. This seems to be a vicious circle where no-one really wins.

Another point rather closer to home for academics is that these measures could impact upon existing copyright agreements. The MP Tom Watson had an early blog on this issue. (This at first got something of the wrong end of the stick, condemning the fact that millions of existing set-top boxes would be made useless, which isn’t true, as he later clarified. However, he’s definitely on target when he asks ‘If implemented this will make it difficult to view or record HDTV broadcasts with free software. Where’s the consumer interest in that settlement?’) The comments on the blog are a rich source for critiques of the issues, and I recommend a read of them. Amongst them is David Newman’s observation that
Once again, the proposed technical changes will overrule existing copyright licensing arrangements, like the one offered by the CLA to all schools and universities to use for education all over-the-air broadcasts forever.
In light of Graham Plumb’s comments it’s unlikely we’ll see copying restrictions being implemented for the BBC, but the system will be in place and there is no guarantee the other public service broadcasters will follow suit. UK librarians may feel obliged to follow their American counterparts. Except by then it might be too late.

Latest: Graham Plumb posted a response to Doctorow’s article on the BBC blog on Friday, with Doctorow in turn providing a counter (post #13). This blog and its comments is also recommended (and lively!) reading.

photo credit: jbonnain, permissions

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