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BBC iPlayer Locks Out Open Source Flash Alternatives

BBC iPlayer Locks Out Open Source Flash Alternatives

The BBC has just gone dark for users of open source media players, due to copyright-protection changes to its iPlayer -- a service that lets UK consumers catch up with radio and television programs from the past week. The action is reminiscent of the bad old days when some content providers supported only certain Web browsers -- which would be considered utter folly today, recalled 451 Group analyst Jay Lyman.

By Katherine Noyes
03/02/10 5:00 AM PT

As a result of recent updates to the BBC's Flash-based iPlayer, open source media players can no longer play its content.

The updates, which reportedly took effect Feb. 18, implement SWF Verification, a copyright protection mechanism that excludes free alternatives to Flash player, such as that offered by the XBMC community, among others. The result is that such open source plugins can no longer stream iPlayer content, The Register reported.

The change came just four days after Flash maker Adobe touted its content protection offerings in a corporate blog post on the topic of monetizing video online.

Online Survey

BBC Trust, which oversees the BBC, has no plans to investigate the decision despite widespread complaints, noted a separate Register report on Monday.

In the meantime, disgruntled users are invited to voice their opinions in an online survey running through March 12.

BBC officials did not respond by press time to LinuxInsider's request for comment.

'The Connection Is Rejected'

BBC iPlayer is a service that lets UK consumers catch up with radio and television programs from the past week. Content is streamed on the site using the RTMP protocol, a proprietary specification published by Adobe.

SWF Verification, meanwhile, is used to limit playback of content to authorized video player applications.

Once a secure connection has been established between client and server, "the Flash runtime computes a hash of the video playback SWF that's running and then sends that hash securely to the server, where it is compared against a list of approved SWFs," Adobe Principal Product Manager Florian Pestoni explained. "If there's no match, the connection is rejected."

Before the changes were made, open media players were not subjected to that test.

'Covered by the DMCA'

XBMC community member frosty noted the change in a post on the community forum on Feb. 20, adding that SWF Verification "probably can't be added safely, as it can be considered a 'copyright protection' mechanism, and so [is] covered by the DMCA (in America).

"Macromedia have sent lawyers after other stream-ripper software that implemented SWF Verification," frosty added.

Users appear to be significantly put out by the change, as evidenced by a long thread of complaints on the BBC site.

"The recent change in the iplayer streaming has had the effect of removing the BBC from my television," noted Xboxer last Monday, for example.

'Never the Best of Friends'

"Streaming content and open source have never been the best of friends, and this is true yet again in the case of the BBC's iPlayer," RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady told LinuxInsider. "While I personally believe this decision is unfortunate, the BBC will of course have to make their own determination on the decision."

What will be particularly interesting to see, however, is "how high a volume of complaints are received," O'Grady noted.

"That will be an interesting indication of how many users are employing open source solutions for consumer use cases," he added.

'It Is Disappointing'

"It is disappointing when industry vendors, media publishers, and content companies and others limit their functionality and audience by overlooking or blocking significant segments of users based on technology, geography or other limitations," 451 Group analyst Jay Lyman agreed.

"It is reminiscent of when only certain Web browsers were supported," he noted.

Today, "after years of competition and innovation, we're in a place where it would be -- rightfully so -- considered folly to support only one Web browser," Lyman told LinuxInsider. "Hopefully, this will someday be the case with media players, but we're certainly not there yet."


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