TiVo's "self-destruct button" destructs

The Macrovision DRM in the new TiVo Series3 recorders is so broken that just having the wrong piece of equipment attached to your TV can cause it to register some shows as un-savable to your VCR, DVD recorder, etc. TiVo characterizes this as a glitch, but that's not the whole story.

By including Macrovision with its products, TiVo is designing a product that is intended to control its owner and treat its owner (TiVo's customer) as an attacker. They've added a swatch of functions that act directly against a user's interests (there's no time at which it's in a user's interest to have her device refuse to record a show the user wants to record). In so doing, they've created a bunch of potential failures in which the user is locked out of her own equipment.

It's like those movies where an accident or a bad guy triggers the "self-destruct button" on a spaceship. Often the self-destruct button is locked away behind plexiglas and padlocks for safety, but wouldn't it be safer not to include a single command that blows up the whole space-ship?

TiVo's problem is a "glitch" but the reason they're having this kind of glitch is that there's a single command that can tell the TiVo to stop listening to its owner. Wouldn't it be better if TiVo didn't build in any technology that attacks its customers?

Our initial test was smooth: we got high-def HDMI output to the JVC receiver and the attached HDTV, and a simultaneous standard-def signal from the TiVo's S-Video and composite outputs (which we were watching on separate monitors). But when we moved onto another program–Revenge of the Sith, recorded off of HBO-HD–the screen suddenly went gray, with a TiVo warning emblazoned across the bottom: "Viewing is not permitted using the TiVo Digital Media Recorder. Try another TV input." Several other programs–Empire of the Sun (HDNet Movies), Simone (HBO-HD), and episodes of Battlestar Galactica (Universal HD) all yielded the same result. Further investigation revealed the culprit: hitting the Info button from the program listing page (TiVo's Now Playing screen) on these programs included a section called "restrictions": "Due to the policy set by the copyright holder, this recording: Cannot be transferred to VCR, DVD, or any other media device. To learn more, visit www.tivo.com/copyprotection."

Visiting that link will reveal apparent culprit: TiVo's Macrovision copy protection. Apparently, these programs were flagged as "copy never," so the box was dutifully following orders, and allowing video only via the copy-protected HDMI output (which is, to date, impossible to record). This isn't new: as far back as 2005, there were reports of TiVo boxes imposing restrictions on the viewing of certain TV shows. At the time, TiVo blamed the restrictions on "false positives"–saying the viewing restriction technology, ostensibly designed for pay-per-view and video-on-demand programming, was being turned on (by the cable companies) to cover a wider array of programming.

When we contacted TiVo about the issues we were having, a company engineer was stumped: he reiterated the same claim from last year, that the content flags should be appearing only on PPV and VOD programs. He suggested that the problem was twofold: our local cable company was "overflagging" its content, and/or the JVC receiver was not properly interpreting the copy-protection flag.


(Thanks, Thomas!)