BBC banned from using DRM on Freeview HD

The BBC proposed a form of DRM on its HD service some time ago, and was roundly criticised for the move. Now it appears Ofcom isn't up for any copy protection either

Ian Morris
2 min read

We reported some time ago on the BBC proposing some basic methods of DRM to prevent material from being copied from the forthcoming Freeview HD service. We pointed out that no amount of DRM will prevent TV shows from being distributed on P2P sites, so we regarded the whole thing as totally pointless. Now, it seems Ofcom is reluctant to allow any form of rights management at all, at least until some of its concerns have been addressed.

The wording on the Ofcom document [PDF] implies that the watchdog could, at a later date, allow the BBC to use its DRM scheme by writing to it with special permission. But as the rules stand, the BBC cannot simply apply the scheme to protect content. Ofcom also says that for it to make a permanent decision on the matter would require a potentially lengthy process.

Some of the responses received by Ofcom thus far have been very interesting to read. One respondent makes the valid point that because some hardware manufacturers reduce costs by using open-source components, they would not be granted a licence to decode protected content by the BBC. The respondent goes on to point out that all these extra licence hoops will push up the price of what is likely to be an expensive box, and in so doing, alienate lower-income homes.

The decision not to allow the type of protection suggested by the BBC comes quite late in the day. HD trials are less than a month away now, and a live service should commence in the new year. Hardware for DVB-T2 and MPEG-4 will more than likely start rolling off the production line towards the end of this year. These Freeview HD boxes will probably include the hardware needed for decrypting streams protected with the BBC's system anyway.

So what does this mean for consumers? The worst-case scenario might be that certain rights-holders, such as Hollywood movie studios or US TV networks, might refuse to allow their content to be shown on Freeview HD channels. That would lead to blank screens for those watching on Freeview, while those on Sky, freesat and Virgin would see a programme with no problem. That's a fairly unlikely outcome, but it's not entirely inconceivable.