October 08, 2007

The Coax Straightjacket: Stopping Cable Copy-Protection Abuse

Greetings. VHS is dead. Its ghost lingers in our homes and in cobweb-filled corners of electronics retailers, but make no mistake, VHS recording is rapidly going the way of the dodo. And this passing is being used as an excuse for one of the biggest consumer ripoffs in technology history -- with our friendly neighborhood cable television services (in their various incarnations) chuckling mightily at the situation.

When we first started hearing about Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems planned for digital television, there was a great deal of concern, even though the planned focus appeared to be on "premium" programming (HBO, Showtime, Pay Per View - PPV, and so on). Much of this seemed rather academic anyway, since consumer devices that would be affected by such systems were still largely vaporware.

But that situation has changed rapidly, and now cable firms (and their fiber, satellite, IPTV, and other variations -- I'm calling them all cable) have got their subscribers by the you know what, and unless the FCC (fat chance) or Congress (perhaps a better chance) get moving, consumers will see their hard won rights to record and save television programming fade into history. It's happening right now.

The Supreme Court "Betamax" decision decades ago established the fair use rights of consumers to make copies of television programs, and save them on videocassettes. But with the demise of VHS, the newly ascendent technology is Digital Video Recorders (DVRs), such as the TiVo and its various cruder generic cousins (the latter typically cable company supplied).

DVRs allow saving of programs on their internal hard drives, but there's a problem. Video takes a lot of bits, and hard drive space is limited. So the trend now is to find ways for consumers to save programs to external media and devices (such as DVDs or PCs), much as they could with VHS tapes. Direct DVD recorders are appearing, as are newer generation TiVos that will shortly have the capability enabled to move programs to PCs and then write them to DVDs.

But many cable firms are trying to thwart these capabilities via DRM, trying to turn back the clock to pre-Betamax days. Their magic wand for this purpose is the Copy Control Information (CCI) byte, transmitted as part of digital cable channels, which impacts any modern device that interfaces directly to a cable system (e.g., through cableCARDS like with the newest TiVo HD -- and many more devices so affected are now appearing).

Set CCI=0x00, and the consumer can dump programs off of their DVRs. Set it to 0x02, and the programs are locked down. The device manufacturers must abide by this rule or suffer the wrath of CableLabs -- the cable industry's own version of Dr. Evil's R&D operation.

Given the power that CCI holds over consumers, one would think that there would be concise standards for how it would be applied to programming. Buzzz! Wrong! In fact, the significant regulations that apply to CCI simply require that digital broadcast channels (that is, over-the-air signals retransmitted as digital cable channels), must set CCI=0x00. Beyond that, the regs are essentially silent.

Now, logically one wouldn't be surprised to find cable companies setting CCI=0x02 -- blocking program saving to DVDs, etc. -- for special event programming, PPV, and perhaps even the HBO/Showtime class of premium channels.

What you might not expect to frequently find is cable company ad hoc CCI blocking of essentially all basic digital channels (other than over-the-air) totally on their own volition -- creating unfair recording capability variations around the country.

For example, Time Warner Cable is generally setting CCI=0x02, and blocking dumping of programs from DVRs, in this expansive manner. There's no evidence that all of these programs suppliers have demanded such an action. Many of these channels run Cable in the Classroom programming that is specifically licensed to be recorded, saved, and distributed in schools under various terms. CCI=0x02 can directly block such licensed use. Similarly, it seems unlikely that the various C-SPAN channels would demand blocking of program dump functions, yet Time Warner is routinely setting CCI=0x02 for some or all of these channels as well (which may often appear only on digital tiers) on many TW systems.

Since nothing requires TW to be taking this broad control freak approach to DRM on their digital channels, the most likely explanation would seem to be a CYA mentality run amok, subscribers' rights be damned.

Comcast, on the other hand, has reportedly been trending in the opposite direction, with their systems moving toward CCI=0x00 settings for most digital channels, allowing consumer program dumping and external saving.

Question: What possible valid reason can there be for cable subscribers of one company's systems to have vastly fewer recording rights for the same channels, compared with subscribers of another company's cable systems?

Answer: There's no valid explanation for this disparity. It's wacky, wrong, and just plain unacceptable. And as more consumer devices affected by this craziness rapidly deploy in the marketplace, subscribers are going to go ballistic when they discover that the pricey boxes they've bought have key functionality cut off at the knees by cable company edict in many locations.

If the cable industry was smart, they'd collectively start reversing draconian CCI settings right now, and start universally treating their subscribers as individuals to be appreciated, not chattel to be abused. But absent such an enlightened approach from the industry as a whole, it's likely that we're going to have to make it clear to Congress that when it comes to this sort of DRM abuse (to paraphrase Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network): "We're as mad as hell and we're not going to take this anymore!" -- assuming that our cable companies don't try to block this too, of course.


Posted by Lauren at October 8, 2007 12:38 PM | Permalink
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