June 11, 2001 3:15 PM PDT

TiVo forum hushes hacking discussion

The operator of a Web forum devoted to and sponsored by digital video recorder maker TiVo has asked people to stop posting information about how to copy video off the device onto another machine, fearing he could be held liable for violating a controversial digital copyright law.

David Bott, administrator of the TiVo section of AVSforum.com, said he worries discussion of so-called TiVo video extraction may run afoul of copyright laws and threaten the site.

"My fear with this is more or less I have no clue what is a protected system on the TiVo box under copyright (or what-have-you) and what is not. Thus my fear (is) for the site," Bott wrote.

Entertainment companies have been especially aggressive in wielding the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in attempts to maintain control over their products. Bott told members that TiVo did not ask him to pull the topic from the list. Instead, he wanted to avoid incurring the company's wrath and "avoid being tied into this mess."

For example, under traditional copyright law, a person is allowed to tape a show or movie from a living room television for viewing at a later time or place--say, in a bedroom the day after a show aired. But in his posting, Bott called such practices "a total gray area" when it comes to TiVo, a device that lets people record their favorite shows for viewing at their convenience through the machine.

A TiVo spokeswoman said the company doesn't encourage discussion of the video extraction process because it doesn't want to anger copyright owners.

"As a paid sponsor, we didn't want to appear that we condone or advocate that activity," TiVo spokeswoman Rebecca Baer said. She said the company doesn't want people to talk about video extraction because it could lead to widespread redistribution of shows. "What we don't want is for people to redistribute content for other people to share or see at other times."

When the DMCA was first passed in 1998, many free-speech groups warned that it would chill speech in a variety of ways, especially on the Internet. They feared it would prohibit people from discussing new technology or would crack down on practices that traditionally have been legal under copyright law--such as reverse engineering for research or copying a work for personal use. That's partly because the DMCA expanded a copyright owner's control over its products in unprecedented ways.

Now it looks like some of the worst-case scenarios imagined by those groups are coming true. For example, in April, after receiving legal threats from the entertainment industry, a group of researchers led by Princeton Professor Edward Felten pulled a paper discussing his findings on cracking technology designed to protect music. The Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) and the Recording Industry Association of America had sent Felten and his colleagues a letter warning them that they could run afoul of the DMCA by presenting their work.

Last week Felten filed suit to present his work at a conference in August. In announcing the suit, Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Cindy Cohn, who is representing Felten, said the case is just the latest example of how speech can be threatened by new industry-backed laws.

"I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so," Cohn said at the time.

However, after Felten pulled his paper out of the April conference, the SDMI and RIAA said they never planned to sue the professor and were not trying to stifle academic freedom. The groups called Felten's suit a publicity stunt.

In the first major test of the DMCA, a federal judge prevented a magazine from linking to computer code. That case stemmed from a suit filed by the Motion Picture Association of America, which sued online hacker publication 2600 last year, saying posting and linking to code known as DeCSS amounted to copyright infringement because the computer language could be used to crack DVD security. The case is on appeal.

Many groups have rallied in support of 2600, filing legal briefs on behalf of the publication. Journalists say the federal court ruling could inhibit their ability to freely link to other sites on the Web. Computer programmers say it could prevent them from discussing scientific research.

 

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