September 13, 2005 5:12 PM PDT

TiVo copy protection bug irks users

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A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
update A bug in the latest version of TiVo's operating system has some users concerned that the service's content protection mechanisms--supposedly intended solely for pay-per-view and video-on-demand content--may someday be applied to broadcast television programming.

According to PVRBlog, a blog about TiVo and other digital video recorder companies and technology, some TiVo customers recently found that recorded episodes of "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill" had been red-flagged for content protection.

"When I selected the episode, I got a message to the effect that 'the copyright holder prohibited saving the episode past date mm/dd,'" the note on PVRblog from TiVo user Michael McKay said.

TiVo's operating system version 7.2 was designed by the company to recognize content that's protected by Macrovision technology and is intended to give content providers a way to ensure users do not maintain total control over programming. Generally, the technology can put limits on how long content can be saved, as well as whether it can be copied or otherwise manipulated.

But Jim Denney, director of product marketing at TiVo, told CNET News.com that the content protection experienced by McKay was a bug in the TiVo program, and that Macrovision's technology can only be used to encode pay-per-view, video-on-demand, DVD or VHS content.

Adam Gervin, Macrovision's senior director of marketing, added that it is illegal for the content protection to be applied to broadcast television content.

Broadcast television programming is, "according to our implementation, shows that shouldn't be affected by this," Denney said. The DVR in cases like McKay's "was thinking it was being told it was protected when it actually wasn't."

In other words, Denney said, situations like that reported on PVRblog are the result of errors, or "false positives," in TiVo's detection of copy-protected premium content. They're errors that TiVo is working to eradicate.

For his part, PVRblog founder Matt Haughey acknowledged that the situation raised by McKay was a bug. But he's concerned that what's an error now may be a sign of things to come.

"Even though it was a mistake that the content was marked, the entire system is the part I'm afraid of," Haughey said. "HBO and the NFL have been threatening to do this for over a year with their content. I bet they will soon, and that's OK. I can see where their argument is. My big worry (is) that this sort of worked as a proof of concept for TV networks, like this is how they could crush TiVo users someday."

Denney denied that TiVo is in the process of rolling out the Macrovision system for broadcast TV content.

"For TiVo, it's not a shadow looming of something to come," he said. "But you have to keep an eye on where the industry is going. And I don't think this is specific to TiVo."

Last fall, TiVo general counsel Matthew Zinn gave an interview to Wired magazine in which he was asked whether protecting "higher value" content was a Trojan horse intended to soften consumers up for an inevitable day when all TV content was red-flagged for protection.

"That would be a violent blow to consumer flexibility," Zinn told Wired. "You could end up in a situation where different products by different manufacturers would have different rules. I don't think we would go along with it."

At the time, Zinn also addressed what might happen if content providers become too restrictive for consumers' tastes.

"I think content owners are beginning to recognize that if you make things too restrictive," he told Wired, "then consumers will find non-legal ways to achieve what they want."

Haughey said that given Zinn's comments, he's concerned whether the Macrovision software can in any way flag broadcast TV content.

"TiVo says (it was a bug)," Haughey said. "But I'm saying the TiVo software should ignore flags unless content is pay-per-view or video-on-demand" altogether.

Denney, like Zinn, said TiVo subscribers shouldn't worry.

"It's not in anybody's interest for this (to happen)," Denney said. "Our objective is to have zero false positives. I don't think (this is) foreshadowing something big and ominous."

 
Correction: This story originally misrepresented the interoperation of TiVo's operating system and the TiVo application with technology from Macrovision. The problem reported by TiVo users comes as a result of "false positives" on the part of TiVo and not any flagging of broadcast TV content by Macrovision.

 

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