Sep 14

Marc Hedlund

Marc Hedlund

Oh, come on, TiVo...

Why are people around the blogosphere buying this nonsense?

Jim Denney, director of product marketing for TiVo, said the instances of standard TV shows being affected by new copy protection restrictions likely are "false positives."
Denney said the copy protection is trigged by a flag in the video signal. The reports appearing on the Web appear to be cases where TiVo misinterprets noise in the signal as a copy protection flag, and imposes the restrictions.
"During the test process, we came across people who had false positives because of noisy analog signals," he said. "We actually delayed development (of the new TiVo software) to address those false positives."

[Update: I got this part wrong -- but see note below.] Why not just blame solar flares? Hey, I know, maybe it was hackers!

"Noisy analog signals" don't have a publicist, so they can't stick up for themselves. Let's just let Occam's Razor stand up for them instead. If the signal was so garbled, how can the program listing show perfect text for pages, instead of garbage? Aren't we talking about reception of a single bit of data (flag on or off) -- is that really so hard to receive through that noisy analog signal? Doesn't it seem a lot more likely that some overzealous scheduler clicked a "protect content" checkbox without realizing the storm it would cause?

The basic question is why TiVo is implementing these crap features. But if you want to live with the features, the next question is, who has access to the flag controls? If someone inside TiVo flipped the flag on, for whatever reason, TiVo should say that now. If the broadcaster -- through the analog signal being named as the fall guy by Mr. Denney -- can turn the flag on whenever they want, the power of this feature is in the wrong hands altogether. The only place TiVo should have ever allowed this flag to be set is in the schedule data they provide, which is only analog in that some users get it through their phone lines (apparently not a problem for getting the "King of the Hill" title to the TiVo error-free). Given that TiVo is trying to blame a "bug" for their publicity blow-up, I'm guessing it wasn't a TiVo employee that set the flag. And that makes a terrible feature even worse.

TiVo is selling crap. And they're explaining their bad decisions with even more crap. Don't buy it, and don't let them spread their "bug" explanation any further.

Update: As several commenters pointed out, my questions about the analog transmission of the copy protection flag were more skeptical than they should have been. TiVo does, in fact, delete content from its customers' property based on signals that can be sent out by any broadcaster, and does not regulate the use of this destructive feature through centralized control in their offices. (Glad I invoked Occam's Razor, which says the simplest explanation is usually correct!)

What nearly all of the commenters seem to have missed, though, is that this does make the feature worse than originally reported. Why are you guys so happy to point out that TiVo has handed a remote delete capability to a wide variety of other companies? Why are you so vehement that a faulty analog signal deleting data from my hard drive is a perfectly reasonable explanation? I have a really hard time believing that anyone who doesn't work for TiVo (or Macrovision) directly would support those arguments if they thought them through. If Microsoft Word starting deleting documents from my hard drive should it find that they contained too-extensive quotes from copyrighted material, would that somehow be okay as long as the "delete" signal were analog? I stand by my "come on" and the tags on this post -- it's ridiculous that TiVo is hand-waving about noisy analog signals as though a simple bug sufficiently explains their, or any PVR manufacturer's, decision to interpret any television signal as a good reason to delete data from my hard drive. That sounds much more like The Outer Limits than it does "Television My Way."

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Comments: 14

  Todd Larason [09.15.05 04:32 AM]

The program listing data comes in through three sources, depending on setup and channel lineup: the built-in modem dialing up via PPP; the internet via an ethernet USB adapter; a digital video format that uses almost the entire screen, broadcast as a paid program on the Discovery Channel.

The MacroVision flag is, as the Tivo guy said, _part of the video signal_ of the show being recorded; I think it's included in the signal during the vertical blank interrupt, like closed captioning text is. A noisy analog signal that can distort the closed caption could also turn the flag on. I don't know about your cable system, but garbled CC is very common on mine. And to make it worse, I suspect the Tivo 'feature' turns on if the flag is detected _any time_ during the recorded show.

Which isn't to say that Tivo should have included this odious feature, mind you.

  Marc Hedlund [09.15.05 07:52 AM]


Maybe I should have saved some of my incredulity at the technical explanation and heaped still more on the design decision. My point, I think, stands, regardless of whether they chose a completely unreliable transmission method or not: why would TiVo implement this so that the broadcaster (instead of TiVo itself, or, of course, I and I alone) has control over what the TiVo deletes from my machine?


  Raffi Krikorian [09.15.05 07:59 AM]

on the technological point - i was thinking about that the other night. its probably more than a single bit of data (because they have to encode expiry times and the like), but besides that -- even if we're talking 8 or even 32 whole bits of data -- it shouldn't be that hard to get that across a television line (as they are probably encoding it in the vertical blanking interval). just transmit it a bunch of times at different parts of the program and then corrolate the results. and if they hare having problems doing that, we should be concerned about the engineering chops of TiVo, Inc.

i do agree with you, however, that the broadcaster should have no ability to set the "protection flag" -- because it means that if the FOX station in atlanta wants to set it on an episode of the Simpsons, but the FOX station in boston doesn't, then you've set up an inbalance in the media market. tivo should not be using the vertical blanking interval, if that is what they are doing, and instead they should be relying on the network connection/daily call (where the schedule information comes from in the first place), as the Internet has a leveling effect of the playing field. even if there is a last minute change and the protection is applied to the wrong program, the next time your tivo dials in, it should be able to correct that problem.

what i don't fully yet understand, is why is tivo implementing these features? there clearly isn't a request for features by the consumers. is it a request by the broadcasters? and if its a request from the broadcasters, why is tivo is grossly miscalculating the loss of customer base they are going to experience?

tivo has the unique position of possibly being the first technology company that sold you an appliance where the owner is not in full control; its the first appliance where the company you -bought- the machine from, can change the machine, thereby, effectively, changing what you purchased for. its a bait in switch, perhaps. and that's what they are doing. the tivo i purchased a year ago is awesome. the tivo i have now is crap. and its not just depreciation.

  kayvaan [09.15.05 08:18 AM]

marc - what dvr/dvr-type service do you like? i'm on the market righ now and Tivo customers rave about Tivo.... but my friend at microsoft is telling me to just set up a media center PC. sounds like a lot of work.

  Justin Mason [09.15.05 09:22 AM]

Todd: the DRM experts Cory Doctorow discussed this with (see Boing Boing) were pretty clear -- Macrovision uses a checksum on its transmissions.

For "line noise" to twiddle the copy-protection bit, *and* the checksum to match... those are long odds.

  tivo rocks [09.15.05 09:50 AM]

This 'tivo spin bullshit' is clearly an idiot! Having no idea how tivo works and what the tech is behind it. No need to say anything more about his idiotic posting.

An idiot!

  MegaZone [09.15.05 01:03 PM]

Oh, come on, Marc...

This rant reflects a lack of knowledge about the systems involved.

"If the signal was so garbled, how can the program listing show perfect text for pages, instead of garbage?"

Simple, the two have nothing to do with each other. The program data comes in over a network connection to TiVo's servers - either from the TiVo's modem, or a network connection. (DirecTiVo's get it from a satellite data signal.) It is a completely different stream from the broadcast.

"The only place TiVo should have ever allowed this flag to be set is in the schedule data they provide"

If you'd bothered to research this for, oh, 30 seconds before shooting your mouth off (well, fingers I suppose) you'd know this is a requirement of the MacroVision license. And that requires obeying the flags *in the video stream*. TiVo does not have the option to ignore those and obey something in the guide data. This is signalled through bit flags in the VBI.

This is part of the standard MacroVision license, and it is not unique to TiVo. The same license is held by ReplayTV, cable DVRs, etc. It is pervasive.

And it isn't really a single bit, it is a bit pattern, since it is a map to which restrictions apply and not a simple on/off switch. Yes, that could be caused by noise in the VBI.

Now, is there supposed to be some checksum to double check the pattern and could that be where TiVo's bug is? Could be. But that's still a bug, as they have openly admitted. They got a false positive, and they've admitted it was a bug and they're looking into it. What more do you want?

I've seen a LOT of blog posts about this - but this one is perhaps the worst of the uninformed rumor mongering I've yet seen. Dispicable.

  James [09.15.05 04:52 PM]

I actually had a problem similar to this. The filter on my apartment cable system was broken, and the signal was pretty garbled for a few weeks. Tivo2Go wouldn't copy most of the shows I recorded because it detected the "broadcast" flag and said it was copyrighted. The shows got recorded in the first place, so the situation isn't exactly the same...

  J.T. Wenting [09.15.05 11:03 PM]

They are implementing this because the networks ask for it, simple as that.
They're tired of people taping shows which they plan to sell on DVD after the season is over, because it hurts sales.

  Marc Hedlund [09.15.05 11:40 PM]


A few responses to your comments...

"This rant reflects a lack of knowledge about the systems involved."

Yes, that's right, and thanks to you and others for pointing out my technical errors. However, if you look at my post you'll see I was asking questions about the explanation TiVo gave, and saying that they didn't seem plausible to me. You'll also see that I allowed for the possibility they were true, and that the features were then even worse than described. Given what you and others have said, that seems to be the case.

"If you'd bothered to research this for, oh, 30 seconds before shooting your mouth off (well, fingers I suppose) you'd know this is a requirement of the MacroVision license. And that requires obeying the flags *in the video stream*. TiVo does not have the option to ignore those and obey something in the guide data."

Meaning no disrespect, I read nearly everything I could get my hands on about what TiVo was saying caused this to occur. I take your point that I was more skeptical of their explanation than I should have been, but how does that make the feature any better? When I bought my TiVo it was not the case that it would delete shows from my machine based on copyright flags, and if Macrovision changed its license to be as you say, why isn't TiVo fighting for its customers? What other than customer outrage will get it to start fighting for its customers, or to do so more effectively than apparently it has been?

"Now, is there supposed to be some checksum to double check the pattern and could that be where TiVo's bug is? Could be. But that's still a bug, as they have openly admitted. They got a false positive, and they've admitted it was a bug and they're looking into it. What more do you want?"

Really? I have to even say this? I want my TiVo not to downgrade my OS over the wire without my consent. I want TiVo as a company to treat its customers with respect. I don't want the help pages to tell me that I shouldn't complain about copyright features when TiVo is implementing those features, and apparently not all that well. I want TiVo to at the very least keep tight control over any features of this sort the law requires them to implement, so that the features can't be abused by overzealous broadcasters. And I want real answers for the blowup about these features -- not some nonsense about how static in the line "caused" the flags to appear.

I'm sorry you find my questions about TiVo's explanations "dispicable," but TiVo wouldn't get questions like mine if they stood up and advocated for their customers. I'm not rumor-mongering -- clearly these features exist in the new OS, clearly TiVo thinks they're important to implement, and clearly TiVo thinks customer complaints about them shouldn't even come to them. That's a huge problem if they want their customers to remain their customers. I'm not planning to.

  Prof Farnsworth [09.17.05 06:53 AM]

Technical mischief nonwithstanding, I think it was a test balloon to see what the reaction would be.

It would be interesting to see how many TiVo customers dropped the service in protest, and how many folks have decided to not go with their service as a result.

Technically savvy users probably bypass the stuff anyway..

  Karl Bridges [09.23.05 08:46 AM]

How is this not an invasion of privacy? Is there any difference between what TIVO is doing and a publisher breaking into my house and stealing a copy of a book I've bought? Would it be legal for the cable company to come to the door and demand that I turn over the VHS cassette tape of something I've recorded?
In essence, what TIVO is doing could be seen as a kind of computer virus. You have a piece of software that comes to your computer/TIVO and modifies the harddrive without your consent. Does anyone have the TIVO user agreement and what does it say about this? Can you refuse the software upgrade?

  John Knox [09.26.05 07:29 AM]

The TIVO user agreement clearly states that as part of the TIVO SERVICE, you agree to accept any all software updates provided..


  Sally [09.01.06 07:09 PM]

Tivo has the worst customer service I’ve ever encountered. I bought my Tivo box and subscription online and prepaid for 3 years. I got my Tivo box 8 days later and set it all up – since it was pre-activated, I didn’t have to call it in. Everything worked fine, until I downloaded the Tivo Desktop on my computer on Thursday of week one…

They tell you to wait 2 to 24 hours, so I waited. The next day, there was no Media Access Key (MAK) available in my Tivo box and my computer couldn’t see my recorded programs. By the way, it wasn’t a network issue because I was able to see my photos in my DVR. I called customer service and was on hold for an hour before I talked to anyone. The tech told me to uninstall, remove any hidden files, reinstall Tivo Desktop, reset my preferences to allow transfers in Tivo Desktop, and wait another 24 hours – goodbye (he didn’t even tell me what hidden files to look for, but I figured it out). This didn’t sound to me like it would work, but I tried it anyway. Guess what, come Saturday afternoon, 24 hours after my second re-install, and it still wasn’t working. I called customer service again, and this time I was on hold for 45 minutes. I explained to them the problem and they told me I had to reset my preferences to allow transfers in Tivo Desktop and wait another 24 hours. I grudgingly agreed and followed orders. Sunday afternoon came and it still wasn’t working, so I decided to wait until Monday to give it more time and hopefully see it working on Monday.

When I got home from work on Monday afternoon, Tivo Desktop still wasn’t working. I called customer service, and after being on hold for the typical 45 minutes, I was asked to explain my problem, even though I would give the tech my case number, he insisted on me explaining everything from the beginning – I guess Tivo doesn’t have a database where they can document past customer calls/complaints. After explaining my issues, AGAIN, the technician decides that I didn’t wait long enough, and tells me that it usually takes 24 to 72 hours for the MAK to be activated. I couldn’t believe the runaround I was getting!! I had no choice but to wait because these “technicians” could not help me. I’ll try to shorten this now. I called again on Tuesday (over 45 minutes on hold), explained everything again, was told that they’ll have to escalate it to engineering. I called Wednesday (50 minutes on hold), it wasn’t escalated to engineering because they needed to get some information from me that Tuesday’s tech forgot to get from me. Called Thursday (35 minutes on hold) and was told that yes, it was escalated to engineering, but engineering didn’t have time to look at it because they had a high volume of work this week – they’ll probably get to my problem by Tuesday (Monday is Labor day) and that’s the best they could do for me.

Needless to say, I was fed up with their customer service and lack of technical knowledge and support, and I didn’t have the energy or time to continue this charade. I told them I want to return my box and get a full refund, particularly because I didn’t want to get STUCK with it, or them, after the 30 day trial expired! I shipped it out today and hope they don’t try to scam me from my refund.

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