A Phoenix and a Magic Carpet: rights and wrongs

TL;DR. Phoenix and ChildrenIn the 1970s the BBC produced a TV adaption of “The Phoenix and the Carpet” by E.Nesbit. The images stuck with me and it was probably my first introduction to the concept of a magic carpet – something that I’ve been intrigued by ever since.
On a whim, I decided to see if the Internet could provide me with a way to watch it again, but all I could find was a 15 minute clip on YouTube that served only to whet my appetite even further. So I kept searching. It transpires that the BBC remade the series in 1997, and I did manage to find a torrent of this, but it just didn’t suffice: I’ll explain why further down.
On further searching I discovered a tantalizing link to a BBC site with the title “The Phoenix and the Carpet | Watch Online | BBC Store” and a summary containing the magic date 1977. Of course, disappointment was only a click away and came in the form of the only-too familiar “BBC Store.com is not available in the US and Canada.” together with a page explaining why you may be seeing that page even if you’re not in the US or Canada.
Now, it’s not necessarily the BBC’s fault that they have to enforce this ludicrous restriction, but it still irritates me in the extreme when archaic legal restrictions based on national boundaries attempt to apply themselves on the Internet: apart from being illogical, it doesn’t work.
So after trivially bypassing the comical IP address restriction I am delighted to discover the BBC are selling the original 1977 series either per episode or for 12 quid all in! Now that’s more like it! I don’t want to end up watching this on my laptop though, I thought, so it better be downloadable. It is! Whoopee! A quick financial transaction later and I was able to start viewing the episodes right then and there, and under each episode was a button that said “Download”.
Now this is what it’s supposed to be like in 2016. This is what all the fuss was about. Technically there’s no reason why this wasn’t possible a decade ago but it has taken a while for the provders to realise they can open up their archives and even make money from it! Everyone wins!
I excitedly clicked the download link so that I can watch it on my TV and was interrupted by a bolt of misery that was a big modal pop-up informing me that I had to install a download app. Gaaaah! This is another menace that seems to proliferate on the modern web. There is absolutely no need to install some potentially insecure downloader/uploaded spyware solely for the purpose of getting stuff from, and putting stuff to the web. Seriously, browsers can do this stuff now!
This wasn’t the first time I’ve capitulated and sold my soul – Amazon, Google and now the BBC had got me beaten down. I reluctantly ran the package installer and instantly froze in fearful shock and terror when the dread phrase that no ordinary sinner should ever have to read, appeared on my screen:

You must install Silverlight.

I cried out in anguish as the terrible truth had begun to dawn on me: the BBC have turned to the dark side and by my foolish eagerness I had followed them along the fetid path to eternal misery and damnation. Silverlight? Why? WHY? DRM is bad enough but the added insult of a moribund, failed Microsoft exercise in power-mongery was too much to bear. My laptop has already been compromised enough by my greed and bad judgement in the past – I couldn’t do this to it. So I had a choice: give up on watching The Phoenix and the Carpet and demand my Monday back from Aunty Beeb, or…resort to…methods.

It’s been a while since I was motivated to dabble, and this was the perfect opportunity.

They allow streaming of the media to your web browser. This means there is a way to get the media from them to me and watch it. No matter how much clever encraption and obfuscation they shroud the process in, it’s possible. Not only that, but they support iPads which means there is almost certainly a high quality stream available that doesn’t rely on ropey old flash.

After a bit of probing with Firebug, and some judicious Googling I learned that they were streaming the video using Adobe’s HDS: sending it in 4 second chunks of MP4 video, each with a MIME type of “video/f4f”. Your browser does an HTTP request for each one and seamlessly stitches them together in realish time for your entertainment.
So, with this knowledge, and the observation that the download file names were predictable (identical except for an incrementing decimal number at the end of the file name), I could now get hold of entire episodes by writing a simple little shell script.

After about 20 minutes my script had pulled down all of the 500 or so chunks of video that form episode 1. But now what? How do I join these things together and tune them into something I can play on my telly? A quick google provided the answer: some lovely soul has written a little tool called AdobeHDS.php that does exactly what I want: it looks for downloaded chunks of f4f and combines them into a nice playable FLV file as easy as typing:
php AdobeHDS.php --fragments episode1
BOOM! I have my own copy of the episode that plays on my FMT and that I can keep forever to play at will – long after Silverlight is a piece of historical comedy. Which is fair enough considering I paid for it!

Actually, AdobeHDS.php can even do the downloading of the file pieces and decrypting for you as it turns out. The author deserves a lot of love.

Of course I watched all eight episodes back to back and reveled in nostalgia and wonder at the magic of it all. I’m not sure whether the 1977 version was actually better or whether it was just because of my attachment to it but one thing I can say is that the 1977 Phoenix was far superior, and the crappy 1977 low budget SFX were no worse than the crappy 1997 low budget SFX. The other main difference between the two was the replacement of the 1970s mandatory white actors blacked-up and put in grass skirts, with black actors. I don’t know what was up with people back then that they didn’t consider this to be bizarre and ridiculous behavior but I’m grown up enough to write it off as stupidity from the past so it didn’t mar my enjoyment of the show too much. People did stupid things in the 70s such as enjoying Bernard Manning.

So what have we learned?

  • Copyright is broken and ruins everything. Surely it’s better that works of art are made available, even for money, than being hidden away for nebulous reasons of “rights”. Especially if the owners and creators of the work get paid!
  • Trying to impose national laws on the Internet is a foolish waste of money and is technically unenforceable.
  • DRM only serves to punish people who try to pay legitimately. If you are foolish enough to buy DRM encumbered media you are buying damaged goods. Something you “own” may cease to exist or be rendered unplayable over time.
  • Breaking DRM only needs to be done once. After that the genie is out of the bottle and the media is liberated. Spend money on trying to copy-protect media at your peril.
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