“You are not a gadget”

April 17, 2010

“I’m not anti-open source. I frequently argue for it in various specific projects. But the politically correct dogma that holds that open source is automatically the best path to creativity and innovation is not bourne out by the facts.”

Says Jaron Lanier on page 126 of his book “You are not a gadget“, which was recently given to me by my friend Simon Hopkins and which I’ve just finished reading.

If you’ve read the book you’ll appreciate that writing a blog post about it seems wierd since one of Jaron’s arguments is that individual creativity (indeed individuality itself) is being restricted by social media sites like Facebook or perhaps indeed WordPress.

But the book did seem relevant to the continuing arguments about DRM (which will doubtless flare up again when I publish this).

One thing that struck me is how American the rhetoric of “open source” and “freedom” is. You won’t hear the word “freedom” bandied about with religious zeal much in the UK general election. This country tends to be more pragmatic, consenual and closed in its approach to culture and politics. And one of the things I liked about the book was its pragmatism.

So pragmatically: where’s the gain in removing all forms of content protection? More specifically in the context of iPlayer – if you did remove all DRM or copy protection from iPlayer (which is not going to happen) what would be the benefit?

Is the pain worth the gain? And what is the gain anyway?

This is a question that I’ve asked before… but seems to be the hard one for people to answer.


27 Responses to ““You are not a gadget””

  1. Mo Says:

    There’s an immediate gain that you, or rather the BBC, no longer has to spend vast sums of money supporting the platforms (and content protection schemes) that it deems worthy of being able to access iPlayer. Given that it’s us who pays for that restriction to be put in place, that’s a clear win for the licence-fee payer.

    It also removes the potential for criticism that the corporation is acting as gatekeeper, or is providing an unfair advantage to a particular vendor, or an unfair disadvantage to a particular (unsupported) vendor (which happens today, incidentally).

    I love the assertion that it “is not going to happen”. That’s absolute gold. I’m not at all convinced that you’ve really considered the ramifications of that.

    You are aware that the open source and open content debates (which are two separate things in themselves) are pretty orthogonal to the DRM issue, aren’t you? You seem to be conflating the two rather a lot, when really the only connection is that one has a knock-on effect upon the other, and that other is indicative of much wider issues.

  2. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    It would help if I knew what “orthogonal” meant…

    • Mo Says:

      It’s separate to it, but related in a way.

      The open source issue is indicative, rather than necessarily a problem in itself, this is why I’ve previously said that it’s not actually worthwhile getting wrapped up in that debate in relation to DRM.

      The issue is essentially: if you’re preventing open source from working, then that strongly indicates you’re preventing anything “not blessed” from working, and that is the problem, rather than open source per se.

      ISO, the EBU, the DTG, and even the BBC itself are all built on open standards: that is, anybody can build equipment according to the specifications. There may be nominal fees involved for getting copies of the specs, and there may be patent fees involved (especially if you’re going to be selling the equipment), but that’s it.

      This is not something which can or should change without fully understanding the long-term implications of it. Without open standards, broadcasting is reduced to a glorified CCTV system.

      • Mo Says:

        (It’s worth noting that this bedrock of open standards is enforced, where it comes to ordinary broadcasting, by both of the regulators and written into the BBC’s Charter and Agreement [I know, because I‘ve read both, in full]). Some readings of the Charter & Agreement would suggest that it’s actually supposed to apply to anything which holds a service license, which would include BBC Online (iPlayer doesn’t itself have a service license).

    • pjakma Says:

      It’s a mathematical term. Very loosely it means “it lies in a different dimension” or “is independent from”.

  3. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    I’d be very surprised indeed if the BBC was spending “vast” sums of money, Mo. The BBC spends money on lots of things some licence fee payers disagree with.

    The “kingmaker” point can be dealt with by

    a) the BBC getting iPlayer on as many devices as possible

    b) the BBC being more transparent and explain how these decisions are made (which leads us into trickly areas of the law and confidentiality.

    … not by removing DRM.

    • pjakma Says:

      The kingmaker point can only be dealt with by publishing specifications.

      Note that Mo is arguing primarily against the idea of DRM and that it should not be employed at all. While I agree with Mo on a technical level, my primary concern is to have open standards – I would accept openly specified DRM.

  4. Mo Says:

    “I’d be very surprised indeed if the BBC was spending “vast” sums of money, Mo” — it’s not as much as a season of Doctor Who, that’s for sure, but it’s a non-trivial amount of money.

    Point (a) can only be achieved cost-effectively by letting device-makers implement to a set of open specifications, rather than the corporation catering to the plethora of device makers out there.

    (b) what areas of law and confidentiality, exactly?

    • pjakma Says:

      The “sums of money” can be dealt with very easily. Either Nick obtains it via internal channels or else we FOI for it. Nick, would you be willing to save everyone the bother?

  5. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    Inevitably if iPlayer is to be on all devices then the BBC will have to talk to many device owners – some of whom will want to keep those discussions confidential.

    • Jamie Says:

      The only thing that causes this to be true is the DRM. If iPlayer streams were freely displayable, as broadcast TV is, why would the BBC need to talk to device manufacturers? Surely the BBC doesn’t hold conversations with all TV and radio manufacturers before they design their devices?

      On a different point, there’s a bit of weird nomenclature in there too – surely device _owners_ are the purchasers of the devices, not the manufacturers.

  6. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    Mo – can you point me to the place in the Charter and Agreement where the words “open standards” are used?

    • Mo Says:

      Fair point, the words “open standards” themselves do not appear in the documents.

      Instead, see section 12(1) of the Agreement “the BBC must do all that is reasonably practicable to ensure that [users] are able to access that are intended for them, or elements of their content, in a range of convenient and cost effective ways which are available or might become available in the future.”

      The Agreement & Charter then delegate to the Public Purposes, as defined by the Trust, which specifically includes “Emerging technologies” and is detailed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/purpose/public_purposes/communication.shtml

      Part 4 of the service license states in explicit terms “The service should be easy to use and accessible to all.”

      The only possible way that content can be made accessible to all is by leveraging open standards (again, part of the “Emerging technologies” public purpose).

  7. Luke B Says:

    Nick, why does iPlayer need to be treated any different to traditional over-the-air TV and radio?

    For decades the BBC has broadcast its content without any DRM. Anyone who wants can build a TV or radio set and pick up BBC programmes. The BBC doesn’t need to “support” each individual model, meaning that even obscure models with hardly any users still work. What can be done with the content once you receive it is governed by the law, not technological measures.

    However, with iPlayer, the BBC has to develop a separate program for every platform because of the use of DRM. Not only is this more costly than using open specifications and letting people write their own programs, but it means people using more obscure platforms wont be able to use iPlayer because the BBC can’t realistically write a version for every last platform.

  8. Ben Griffiths Says:

    Hi Nick,

    You say: “inevitably if iPlayer is to be on all devices then the BBC will have to talk to many device owners”

    The same level of iPlayer service as the iPhone gets could be provided to every Android device by the BBC removing the program it wrote that checks that it’s serving content to a iPhone.

    No need to talk to any owners – you could do it tomorrow.

    As an added bonus, it would work on all recent Blackberries and most of the newer Windows devices too.

    Without having to talk to any manufacturers, you could widen the service to almost all smartphone owners in the UK.

    How’s that for practical value? That’s not worthless, is it?

  9. Myatu Says:

    As one of your career goals you stated: “I want to change the UK’s media, so that it becomes something we all do together, not something that is just pushed at passive consumers.”

    When a consumer is subject to DRM restrictions set by the BBC, exactly how does that make said consumer less passive?

  10. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    “The only possible way that content can be made accessible to all is by leveraging open standards (again, part of the “Emerging technologies” public purpose).”

    With respect Mo, that’s your opinion.

    The Charter is neutral about how that aim is to be achieved and is not any endorsement of open standards. As I suspected it would be.

    • Mo Says:

      “With respect Mo, that’s your opinion.”

      Well, you’re right.

      The BBC could support all possible devices out there, but it would spend every penny of the licence fee doing just that and destroy the corporation into the bargain. No single entity has that kind of resources. That’s why there are open standards.

      When I said that the list of iPlayer-supported devices was a small number, I meant it. Compared to those which are technically capable of playing audio and video and could be made to work by somebody (that is, the corporation, or the manufacturer, or a third party — including the individual who bought the device), it’s a hilariously small proportion.

    • Mo Says:

      It’s an extremely narrow reading of the documents to conclude that the Charter is neutral on open standards: they’re the only means by which the public purposes can be fulfilled (as required by the Charter), and thus are implied.

  11. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    And we’ve also drifted off topic.

    Regardless of what the Charter says – is the pain worth the gain?

    • Luke B Says:

      Surely there’s more pain involved in a solution with DRM as you need different solutions for different platforms.
      By using open standards there’s less pain and more gain.

    • pjakma Says:

      Yes of course it’s worth it. It’s utterly anti-competitive to require the BBC to be involved in the design and implementation of every receiver device out there. How many mandarin and cantonese speakers does the BBC have btw? How many are sufficiently technical to be able to work with asian manufacturers?

      I’m sorry, but the notion that the market place should be completely ham-strung by requiring the BBC to have its finger in every implementation is utterly anti-thetical to a competitive market place.

  12. Hi Nick!

    In fairness to Mo, the development and use of open standards has been the means by which the BBC has *always* historically achieved this requirement in its charter.

    Indeed, the use of DRM in iPlayer has marked a significant change in technological strategy. Whereas before the BBC would ensure that the specifications for receiving it’s broadcasts were clear and widely available, the addition of deliberate obfuscation (which is effectively what DRM is) flies in the face of long-standing practice.

    Despite this, so far as I am aware, these is no evidence to suggest that it has had any impact on the unauthorized (re-)distribution of copyrighted materials; the DRM has always been unpicked or bypassed.

    It is also clear that it has reduced the ability of consumers to take advantage of the services offered, precisely *because* they are not provided in an open, well-specified manner.

    So I can see how simple cost-benefit analyses by interested lay geeks like Mo and others weigh up the costs of implementing and maintaining ineffective DRM, see the increase in complexity and reductions in interoperability, and spot the missed economies of scale in technology development that open standards have historically supported — and conclude that it was a bad call that should be reversed.

    – – –

    This doesn’t address the problem that media distribution companies are continuing to panic over the fact that their products are no-longer excludable and are desperately trying to ineffectually apply crypto technology to make it so again everywhere, the BBC included.

    And they have the BBC over a barrel, so it’s not surprising the BBC were forced to go down this path. But it doesn’t go anywhere; the sooner we can backtrack and take a more sensible road, the better!

  13. Ben Griffiths Says:

    I haven’t read Lanier’s book, but I did hear him talk about it. I think his thesis was along the lines of: individuals have worth; the web is a collectivist, aggregating machine that seeks to undervalue that.

    Well, we can all agree that there are parts of the net for which that’s indeed true. Not sure how that connects with the BBC choosing what devices its content can be consumed on.

    Maybe you could expand on that a little? I’m genuinely interested to see how that connects for you. Maybe Lanier’s thesis is broader than I thought it was.

    Are you saying that my suggestion that I should be able to watch iPlayer on my Android phone like I used to on my iPhone fits into this somehow?

    Arguments over whether things are better developed in the open, or behind closed doors are separate from the practical argument of whether one should publish content in open standards or wrapped in device-specific DRM. How TV shows are developed is almost irrelevant here.

    My point is a wholly pragmatic one, I think. If the BBC published its programmes in an open format, it would be more accessible – to me, at least, and to many others who don’t choose an iPhone -, it would be future-proof, and therefore cost less to maintain.

    And pragmatically, of course, BBC content ripped off the airwaves is available on Usenet and torrent sites before it even appears on the iplayer. So, a pragmatic response to piracy, this DRM-laden iPlayer isn’t.

    Pragmatically, too, are future DVD sales of many of the BBC’s programmes – newsnight, question time, even eastenders – really under threat? Are DVDs of these programmes even sold? Why aren’t they published in open formats?

    This argument is separate to any open source concerns, except obviously, to note that platforms based on open-source software are being chosen by consumers, and open, unrestricted formats are more accessible on those platforms.

  14. pjakma Says:

    From the other blog comments, my letter to BBC Trust on ondemand review: http://bit.ly/9ce3D2

  15. […] Posts "Freedom? Open Source?" Tell me why?"You are not a gadget"About Nick ReynoldsBBC People Editing Wikipedia – Independent On Sunday StoryThe Man In The […]

  16. Amanda Says:


    Some friends and I are hosting a blog-based discussion of the book You Are Not a Gadget as we read it. Since several of us are traveling around this summer, it’s an online book club and it incorporates our perspective on the book from Boston to Syria to Paris and even Bhutan.

    Please check it out and post your insight if you’d like.


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