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DLS Interview: Free Software Foundation's Peter Brown

As we mentioned on Monday, the Free Software Foundation's Defective by Design campaign against DRM paid the U.K. a visit yesterday with protests outside the BBC's London and Manchester locations against the use of Microsoft DRM technology in their highly debated iPlayer software.

The BBC iPlayer has been in development for a number of years now, costing the BBC public £130 million (nearly $260 million) to date. The use of Microsoft's DRM technology has been highly contentious, especially with the appointment of Erik Huggers (previously director of Microsoft's Windows Digital Media division whose technology the BBC now employs in their iPlayer software) as controller of the BBC's future media and technology group which is managing the iPlayer project.

The BBC is a publicly funded body, governed by the BBC Trust who protect, amongst other things, open access and independence form corporate influence. The BBC has been told to make the player platform independent, however Mac and Linux users are likely to be out in the cold for some time.

Download Squad decided to visit the protest and spoke to Peter Brown, Executive Director of the Free Software Foundation, about the reasoning behind the protests and what the campaigns hopes for the future. We've made the interview available either as a text transcript after the break, or via the Download Squad podcast feed.

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Defective by Design, London: Protest Pictures

DLS: So what are the aims of today's protest?

PB: We're really here to put pressure on the BBC Trust and the executives who advise them within the BBC. Those executives unfortunately have very close relationships with Microsoft, to the extent that the guy who's managing the iPlayer development and rollout is in fact an ex-Microsoft executive, Erik Huggers.

DLS: How realistic and achievable do you think your campaign will be, given the current somewhat restrictive digital intellectual property climate?

PB: Of course what's interesting is that in one weeks time, Universal Music will be distributing their entire catalogue without DRM. EMI has already started distributing it's catalogue without DRM, so it's in fact DRM itself that is under threat. The reason is that DRM technically doesn't work, in a sense that it doesn't do what it is advertised to and hence it gets cracked and broken by computer enthusiasts. Secondly, consumers don't like DRM. They don't like installing spyware and monitoring systems on their computers, and they like to be in control of the digital files they typically purchase or use. So these media companies have discovered that by using DRM they've actually had a large negative impact on their business, so the reason they're dropping DRM is because consumers are refusing to use it. So in a sense, here we are today calling out the BBC because of the iPlayer, encouraging people not to use the iPlayer, not to get involved with digital restrictions. It's through that process that the BBC will end up dropping DRM from the iPlayer.

DLS: The argument that DRM is necessary to protect digital video, and more recently audio, has been around since the 1980s. Why do you think it's taken so long for a vocal and successful campaign such as Defective by Design to reach something of a critical mass, and get less technically-informed audiences aware of the risks of DRM?

PB: I think it's simply because up until now, DRM hasn't been as intrusive as it is now. Yes, the DVD you've purchased would be encrypted and the DVD player couldn't record the DVD you're playing, and that's a certain level of a problem that you cannot make a backup of the DVD you've bought. But what's started to happen is that they're forcing DRM onto our computers and personal devices such as the iPod and other MP3 players. The problem with those is that they became very intrusive to people and their daily lives are being affected by the fact that they can't move the files around that they thought they'd purchased.

DLS: As was the case with Google shutting down their Video service of the weekend.

PB: Indeed. Some of the products they were selling we called "Video for Life" and "Yours to Own", and in closing down Google Video, they've requested, well in fact told people they will no longer be able to play their videos. This is the problem with DRM - it trumps a lot of the traditional rights we've had with art and music but more importantly we're getting into a period now where we're using computers more and more. Trying to stop the copying of digital bits is impossible. It's just impossible. So the idea that DRM can work has been proven to be a fraud.

It appears that the media companies have looked upon this as a technical problem. They've seen they can't get everything they want through lobbying for changes in copyright law. So instead of that, they've created DRM to effectively impose through DRM what they could get through lobbying for copyright change. So that means every use becomes a use, every time you watch becomes monitored, every interaction you have with a copyrighted work becomes a transaction to them. So by standing up against DRM we're actually allowing ourselves to free ourselves from those monopolists, free our art and free our movies, and this will be to the benefit of the artists. It certainly won't to the benefit of the corporations that currently control the artists, but it will (long term) be of benefit to the artists).

DLS: So this isn't a protest about being unable to file-share media?

PB: Absolutely not. This is a social issue. Do we want our technology turned against us, to lock us down, to monitor us, and effectively take away the power this digital world has promised us? Clearly the answer is no. We want a future where we create communities and those communities are based upon respect. Music and video are no longer a scarce commodity. The idea that pricing should match a scarce commodity in the way it historically has is just not true anymore. They have to change their business models and they have to become more realistic about the other things we spend our time doing. We don't spend all out time listening to music anymore, so it's natural that there's this very huge upheaval going on in the media companies and I think that if we can just encourage the BBC to reverse course on this, to hold out for a little while longer, you'll see like EMI and Universal have done, all the video and music companies changing their mind and distributing their video and music without DRM.

Tags: BBC, BBC iPlayer, dlspodcast, drm, foss, free and open source software, FreeAndOpenSourceSoftware, opensource, podcasts, video on demand, VideoOnDemand