EFF comes to the rescue of Texas Instruments calculator hackers

EFF defends calculator hackers

By Cory Doctorow

EFF has come to the rescue of three Texas Instruments graphing calculator hackers who had written their own software for their devices and received a threat of a copyright lawsuit from TI for their trouble. Heck of a job, TI.

TI's calculators perform a "signature check" that allows only approved operating systems to be loaded onto the hardware. But researchers were able to reverse-engineer signing keys, allowing tinkers to install custom operating systems and unlock new functionality in the calculators' hardware. In response to this discovery, TI unleashed a torrent of demand letters claiming that the anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) required the hobbyists to take down commentary about and links to the keys. EFF represents three men who received such letters.

"The DMCA should not be abused to censor online discussion by people who are behaving perfectly legally," said Tom Cross, who blogs at memestreams.net. "It's legal to engage in reverse engineering, and its legal to talk about reverse engineering."

EFF Warns Texas Instruments to Stop Harassing Calculator Hobbyists

(Image: Savingsand.co.uk)

Published 12:35 pm Tue, Oct 13, 2009


About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

25 Responses to “EFF comes to the rescue of Texas Instruments calculator hackers”

  1. wobblesthegoose says:

    I used to feel so sinister playing Drug Wars on my TI-86 because of the illicit drug use, but apparently it is having on the calculator to begin with that was the real crime.

  2. cognitive dissonance says:

    i wouldn’t have made it through high school if i didnt have super mario on my ti83.

  3. lasttide says:

    So, yet another copyright infringement threat where the alleged infringers were in no way damaging the companies products or business model?

    TI sells calculators, then gives them add-on software for free. Users buy calculators, then make their own free software. Who cares? Who is losing revenue? Why would TI waste money on lawyer hours to chastise devoted users of their products? WHY WOULD ANYONE THINK THIS IS A GOOD IDEA?

    • Gilbert Wham says:

      Why? Because they borrowed a lot of money to get through law school and they NEED TO PAY IT BACK!

  4. Mitch says:

    So, if I’m interested in this software I’ll have to buy a Texas Instruments graphing calculator to try it out. How
    is TI hurt by me buying their hardware? It’s the same thing
    with running Linux on gaming consoles. It just promotes more interest in the devices. How can that be a bad thing for someone who sells devices?

  5. Anonymous says:

    As I understand it, the problem has to do with calculator certification. Some of the big testing groups allow only certain calculator models. If they find that people can easily extend the capabilities of some models, those models may be de-certified.

    Not saying this justifies DMCA thuggery, just saying there may be a business reason for T.I.’s actions.

  6. surreality says:

    “As I understand it, the problem has to do with calculator certification. Some of the big testing groups allow only certain calculator models. If they find that people can easily extend the capabilities of some models, those models may be de-certified.”

    I think – but I’m not sure – there’s a way to clear off all extra sorts of applications that would be illicit to use during a test. However, I don’t know if that would work in this situation.

    • Chris S says:

      Re: clearing illicit applications

      In this case, it is actually the operating system signing keys that were found. As a result, the OS could be modified, even to the point where those illicit applications could be made a permanent (until the next OS update) part of the calculator.

  7. Anonymous says:

    See what happens? You get rid of your missiles division and every punk on the block thinks he can take your shit.

  8. takeshi says:

    Aren’t calculator hackers the most likely people to BUY these calculators? Sheesh. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

  9. bardfinn says:

    Texas Instruments’ likely interest in attempting to remove those keys from the public view is this: Someone with those keys, and a copy of Texas Instruments’ OS for their calculators (freely available via TI’s website), would be able to counterfeit TI’s hardware – make cheap, craptacular knockoffs of TI calculators that are not only willing to run the OS of TI calculators but which are able to persuade TI’s calculator OSes to run on /them/.

    Since we all know that there isn’t a market in selling the operating system of TI calculators (except perhaps to licensed OEMs, and AFAIK TI has never done so), TI’s interest is in losing market share of TI calculator hardware – chips and PCBs and entire calculators that they themselves manufacture, and loyalty to the operating system is their key to market domination of the domestic high-end calculator market (their competition is Casio and then Sharp, respectively).

    If someone becomes able to drop TI’s OS onto commodity hardware, TI’s actual revenue stream (hardware sales) dries up.

    If you run the OS on an emulator? Revenue stream dries up.
    If you run the OS on your iPhone? Revenue stream dries up.

    The important part here is this: Copyright law does not exist to protect someone’s business model.

    Disclaimer: I do not work for TI, I am not a competitor of TI, I don’t work for a competitor of TI, no entity in the graphing calculator market compensates me in any way, I don’t know TI’s rationale for the cease & desist attempt, my opinion is not necessarily that of TI nor any of its competitors, I am not a lawyer, I am not your lawyer, this is not legal advice. Your mileage may vary. Void where prohibited. Keep cool; process promptly. This supersedes all previous notices. Ever wonder why it’s not “supercedes”? By reading this comment you have agreed, on behalf of your employer, to release me from all obligations and waivers arising from any and all NON-NEGOTIATED agreements, licenses, terms-of-service, shrinkwrap, clickwrap, browsewrap, confidentiality, non-disclosure, non-compete and acceptable use policies (“BOGUS AGREEMENTS”) that I have entered into with your employer, its partners, licensors, agents and assigns, in perpetuity, without prejudice to my ongoing rights and privileges (“THE GREAT ESCAPE”), unless you or your employer are a representative, partner, licensor, agent, or assignee of Happy Mutants LLC or Federated Media, in which case the preceding clause (THE GREAT ESCAPE) does not apply to you. You further represent that you have the authority to release me from any BOGUS AGREEMENTS on behalf of your employer (“THE COLESLAW REDEMPTION”), unless you or your employer are a representative, partner, licensor, agent, or assignee of Happy Mutants LLC or Federated Media, in which case the preceding clause (THE COLESLAW REDEMPTION) does not apply to you. Don’t sue me.

    • Anonymous says:

      except the fact that the os is free download-able from ti’s site unencrypted its stored in an intel hex format that is readable in any text edtior. All these keys do is make sure the OS being sent to the calculator was made by TI preventing other people from making third party OS’s.

    • CDL034 says:

      TI already sells an emulator for pc.

  10. querent says:

    sell hardware, folks. we buy objects now.

  11. zikman says:

    ah, cool to see this get some attention. I’ve been following along as I am a fan of both copyright law and TI calculators (especially the hackability of them).

  12. Anonymous says:

    I could see TI being held legally responsible if a sabotaged calculator resulted in some sort of engineering-related accident. The DMCA, however, is not the way to protect against this.

  13. O_M says:

    …Something else to keep in mind is that TI has always wanted to have as much control on software as well as hardware, in an attempt to hog all the profit streams. This is what killed the 99/4A when they made it prohibitively expensive to license the rights *and* acquire the ROM burners and chips to make the firmware carts. IBM tried the same thing with the PC Jr, and got burned just as bad in that regard. Commodore was nowhere near as greedy, and Atari was even cheaper, and both systems thrived long after the 8088 gained its initial dominance.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Imagine how ridiculous the automakers would look if they tried the same menaces on Car-Mods all over; from backyard amateurs to ‘pimp your ride’ shops. Not to mention the countless magazines and websites devoted to car-tunning

  15. bolamig says:

    The DMCA does grant exceptions, but the EFF isn’t saying which exception they think applies in this case. Why can’t anyone just speak plainly these days? Oh, right, the lawyers.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I’m not a lawyer, but… I don’t think this qualifies as circumvention… if it was the other way around, (running the OS on fake hardware) AND the OS is only licensed for the TI hardware (I assume it is, btw – but I haven’t read the EULA in question) then they would have a case — but this is making your own independent work, and running it on hardware you own. When you do that, none of TI’s IP is being copied.

    And no, a couple of numbers are *not* copyrightable!

  17. Anonymous says:

    I’ve got a lace trim on mine, with a legs that keep it same, in case of coffee spills. I’ve also put some glitter on the display. Not enough to cover it – just enough to make it pretty.

    Is this now illegal?

  18. ajanata says:

    @bardfinn: The operating system itself is not encrypted in any way. If someone wanted to try to load TI’s operating system onto other devices, there’s nothing to prevent them from doing so, as long as the hardware reacts in the same way. This is how emulators (such as VirtualTI – http://www.ticalc.org/archives/files/fileinfo/84/8442.html) function, and have for the past *decade*.
    The only new thing going on here is getting the calculator *hardware* to accept *other* operating systems than the ones TI themselves made.
    Yes, they stand to lose certification on standardized tests, but this is a perfect chance for them to push the new Nspire line even harder. They haven’t been able to get people to start using them, and this is an offer on a silver platter for them to shove it at schools etc.

  19. ill lich says:

    What if Les Paul could have restricted his signature model guitar for only jazz performances?

  20. Anonymous says:


    I’m not sure if this is the case here, but sometimes companies sell the same base product at different price points with certain features enabled/disabled. My Dell PowerEdge SC comes to mind (very similar to a Dimension desktop that costs 3x more).

    Mainstream hacking would certainly put a wrench in this strategy.

  21. Anonymous says:

    This is a lot like jailbreaking your iPhone or iPod. This has been doable for a while now. Apple claims that they will void your warranty if you jailbreak, but clever hackers can restore their iPhone to a virgin state if they ever need to. Same thing here. I don’t think that TI should care very much, because a) what can they do about it and b) the calculator does not belong to them, and c) the encryption key doesn’t hide any actual OS code. Hack on!