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Open sourcers rattle EU sabre at BBC on demand player

Anti-competitive DRM accusations ramped up

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The BBC is being threatened with an anti-trust challenge in Europe over its use of the Windows Media format in its on demand service, iPlayer, which is in the final stages of testing.

Advocacy group the Open Source Consortium (OSC) will raise a formal complaint with UK broadcast and telecoms watchdog Ofcom next week, and has vowed to take its accusations to the European Competition Commission if domestic regulators do not act.

The OSC, whose membership comprises individual open source proponents and vendors, says the BBC is unfairly locking the public into Microsoft operating systems. OSC CEO Rick Timmis said: "We've got a broad and varied market place and it seems counter productive to round all your chickens in one pen."

The OSC compared the situation to the European Commission's prosecution of Microsoft over its bundling of Windows Media Player with Windows. That case was initiated in 2004 by complaints from other vendors, and resulted in European courts imposing a record fine on Redmond, which it is still appealing against.

The final decision to approve a Windows-only broadband player was made by the BBC Trust at the end of April. The public broadcaster's independent governing body approved iPlayer on the basis of its own investigations and a Market Impact Assessment (MIA) carried out by Ofcom.

Ofcom insisted that its process had been inclusive and open, and said any further progress on the matter was now in the hands of the BBC Trust. "We made recomendations which were taken on board by the trust," a spokesman said.

The OSC first raised anti-competitive concerns via letters to Ofcom earlier this year. In his response, Ofcom's director of competition policy Gareth Davies quoted the MIA: "On balance, we consider that access to iPlayer would be only one of many factors influencing the decision to purchase a new computer operating system, and is therefore this is likely to be a relatively minor concern."

Regarding the iPlayer's direct impact on the media player market, the MIA said it "would require a very significant assessment of the media player/DRM markets". Both OSC and Ofcom are liaising with the Office of Fair Trading on the issues.

The BBC has explained its choice of DRM in terms of the trust's specification that downloaded shows should be time bombed to become unviewable after 30 days. In a statement, the BBC told The Register: "In order to maximise public value, the BBC must balance extending access to content with the need to maintain the interests of rights holders and the value of secondary rights in BBC programming. Without a time-based DRM framework the BBC would not be able to meet the terms of the trust's PVT decision.

"It is not possible to put an exact timeframe on when BBC iPlayer will be available for Mac users. However, we are working to ensure this happens as soon as possible and the BBC Trust will be monitoring progress on a six monthly basis."

For streaming media, such as news clips, in the past the BBC has preferred to use the RealPlayer format, which does not have a time bomb function for downloadable video. The OSC insists that on demand streaming, or DRM-free downloads would be more in the public interest than an OS-specific format.

The iPlayer project has already had a lengthy and troubled gestation, going back to a first announcement four years ago. Since then it has been rebranded twice and reannounced repeatedly. In the meantime, terrestrial rivals ITV and Channel 4 have developed and delivered on demand programming over the internet. Recently, details have emerged of a bid to unite the competing players under the banner "Project Kangaroo". ®

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