A licence to leave you out

The BBC plan to use software that works only with Windows is anti-competitive.

It is a well-known fact that, despite the oft-lauded opportunities for self-development through digital creativity offered by the online virtual world Second Life, many people still use it exclusively to explore the more adventurous side of their sexuality. Although I'm not a regular S'Lifer myself (my excuse is that my laptop does not have the appropriate graphics card) it came as no surprise to me when, dining with a Second Life enthusiast last year, I was informed of the competitive market for penises in-world.

Apparently, the creative ingenuity of the businesses supplying avatar add-ons is so great that models intended to attract admiration become obsolete within months. If nothing else, this conversation resulted in the coining of what I still consider would make the world's best band name: Last Month's Penis.

On 27 July, the BBC is to launch its controversial iPlayer. An extension of the current streaming services, it is intended to allow people to download BBC programmes and keep them for up to seven days from broadcast. The service has been in development since 2003, but I, like many licence fee-payers, won't be able to use it when it finally does launch.

Why? Because my computer doesn't run the current Microsoft operating system - it runs Ubuntu Linux. The BBC requires that those using the iPlayer can't hold on to the programmes they download for ever, mainly so that the largely independent production companies which maintain ownership of the rights can sell them on elsewhere. However, meeting this requirement means they need to employ some form of digital rights management (DRM), and the DRM tool that they've chosen will work only on Microsoft's current software. It's not just Linux users who will be left out in the cold - anyone using a Mac or an older version of Windows will be, too.

The move has caused outrage among Linux users, with many wondering if they should stop paying their licence fee. And the Open Source Consortium, which represents small businesses that predicate their wares on Linux - and which complain that the BBC's move is anti-competitive, distorting the market in favour of Microsoft - has made a last-minute intervention through Ofcom.

Of course, the BBC would not face accusations of market distortion, were it to use standard formats. But this option has been precluded by the perceived requirement of rights holders to use DRM, even as those in other spheres, such as the recording company EMI, are moving away from this consumer-unfriendly technology. Indeed, the BBC seems to have got itself into a position where it cannot win; and this is partly because expectations about what we can do in the digital world have already moved on. By the time it launches, the iPlayer might already be Last Month's Penis.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?