The BBC has rushed out a version of its iPlayer for the Apple iPhone with minimal copy protection. It has since plugged a loophole that allowed any user simply to emulate a request as if from an iPhone to receive an unencrypted downloadable file. The BBC still faces an increasingly futile arms race with users seeking to circumvent copy protection.

Having started with Microsoft Windows Media downloads wrapped in digital rights management that was quickly compromised, the BBC extended its service to Flash which provided immediate streaming with cross-platform support and quickly gained popularity. The BBC recently added open standard MPEG-4 H.264 encoded files that could be played on an Apple iPhone or iPod Touch, which do not currently support Flash.

“We started with iPhone because it is the device most optimised for high quality video currently available,” wrote Anthony Rose, head of digital media technology at the BBC. “We’re working on making BBC iPlayer available on many more browser-enabled devices over the coming months.”

However, users soon found that they could access these MPEG-4 files simply by emulating the requests strings sent by the web browser on the Apple devices. A patch was then put in place to improve security, but this too can apparently be circumvented.

The BBC said in a statement: “The BBC iPlayer on iPhone and iPod Touch is currently in beta, which enables the BBC to pick up on these issues and find a solution that ensures the content is delivered to users in a secure way before the service is rolled out.”

The addition of the open standard MPEG-4 H.264 format for the iPlayer has been welcomed by many, but calls into question again how the BBC can impose copy protection through technical means. Some have argued that it is ultimately futile, since the BBC already broadcasts all of its services without encryption.

Cory Doctrow, editor of the Boing Boing blog and a proponent of more liberal copyright regimes, pointed out that “BBC programmes are broadcast across the country in digital form without DRM, literally diffused at the speed of light in all directions without any restrictions, but the Beeb somehow believes that there’s a new risk of piracy created by letting those same digital files out on the net.”

“I invite you to prove this for yourself by visiting one of this country’s many fine high-powered, omnidirectional broadcast towers,” he continued. “You can also verify this by pointing a satellite dish at the sky, whence the BBC’s unencrypted signal emanates.”

Making the iPlayer available on the iPhone with inadequate content protection could be considered technically naïve, or it could be viewed as a subtle move away from enforced digital rights management schemes that have proved unnecessarily restrictive and inconvenient for legitimate users.

As the online video market matures it seems that providing users with easy access to legitimate content could be the best solution to problems of illicit digital distribution.