Fair use or lack of fair play?

by Nicholas Petreley

I have a column (/var/opinion) in an upcoming issue that deals with my struggles to get a MythTV system working. The column ends with a tease about yet another column on Linux standards. I don't want to spoil either, so I'll leave it at that. However, I have another beef about the way my MythTV system is shaping up, or more accurately, falling apart. I suspect the problem is that our fair use rights are being denied and we are deliberately prevented from capturing high quality content.

First, let me bring you up to date. My television fried, so I replaced it with a great deal on an Samsung HDTV. I have an old TiVo unit that simply doesn't do justice to the new picture quality. So I swapped my old cable box with an HDTV-capable cable box. This particular cable box has a PVR in it, but it stinks. So I figured I'd put together a MythTV system to replace the PVR capability in the cable box.

Here's a point I didn't make clear in the upcoming column, which will probably lead to a number of unfortunate "you dummy" letters:

I'm using a Hauppauge WinTV PVR-500MCE as my TV Tuner card for MythTV. I know that the Hauppauge unit does not do HDTV, and I didn't expect it to. The plan was to tune the Hauppauge card to channel 3 (or just connect to the unit via the AVI or S-Video) and use an IR blaster to make my Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000HD cable box do the actual channel surfing. I assumed (and I still haven't found out if this assumption is right or wrong) that when I watch regular SDTV, I can set it up to expand the resolution of SDTV to one of the better resolutions of the HDTV. This is, after all, how the cable box itself works.

If I want to watch real HDTV, however, I'll have to change the source at the TV from the PC back to the cable box. I have no problem with that.

Ideally, I'd rather connect the output of the cable box directly to the Linux box, and use that as my source for the PVR. That way I could record both standard and high-resolution content. That's my ultimate goal. The Hauppauge unit was meant to be an intermediate step.

Strangled by cable

Here's the problem. I connected the cable output of the 8000HD to the TV input of the Hauppauge card. I get nothing. Upon more careful examination of the 8000HD manual, I find that the cable box works in two modes. It can output a signal to the DVI connector or the YPbPr cables when you set the unit in HDTV-capable mode, or it can output a signal to the coaxial cable, S-Video, or AVI output cables if you put it in SDTV mode. When you have it in HDTV mode, it shuts off any output to the coaxial cable, S-Video and AVI cables. When you have it in SDTV mode, it shuts off any output to the DVI or YPbPr cables.

In other words, if I leave the cable box in the desired HDTV mode, there's nothing I can do to hook up the cable box to the Hauppauge unit. Even this wouldn't be so bad if I had a one-button switch that flip-flopped the cable box between HDTV and SDTV mode. But that's not how the cable box works. You have to go through a series of contortions to get the box in one mode or the other. You have to turn off the cable box, press two buttons on the front panel and then mess with the remote control to swap modes.

A better way

Okay, so here's what I envision would be an ideal solution, given the absurd restrictions imposed by the cable box. I'd love to buy an HDTV input card (preferably with an MPEG hardware encoder/decoder on it) with an HDMI connector for input and/or a YPbPr+audio input. Assuming I could get Linux drivers for this fictional card (a bold assumption, I admit), this would make it easy for me to turn my Linux box into the ideal HDTV-capable PVR.

As far as I can see, there is no such animal. I can find HDTV tuner cards, but that's not what I'm looking for. I don't want to replace my cable box, particularly because that would limit the number of channels I can receive. I simply want to take the output of the cable box and plug it into my Linux-based PVR.

Something rotten in the state of technology

It is at this point that I begin to smell a rat. Even if I could find a card that has HDMI input, which I can't, I don't think I'd want one. The main purpose of HDMI, as far as I can tell, is to create a standard that supports the ability to block people from making illegal copies of high-quality content.

I don't want to make illegal copies of anything, but I do want to exercise my fair use rights. However, I don't think anyone is going to make a card that permits fair use, because fair use opens the possibility of illegal copying. It amazes me that people are clamoring for HDMI connectors on new equipment when it seems as if the purpose of HDMI is to limit what customers can do.

Regardless, it seems as if the only input card that would allow me to do what I want to do would have to support a YPbPr+audio connection. Maybe I simply missed one in my search, but I couldn't find anything like it. If you know of such a card, please leave a link in comments. Maybe that would settle the issue.

But if no such card exists, that leaves me with some final questions for those of you who may have trodden this territory before me.

Is there really a way to accomplish what I'm seeking to accomplish as my ultimate goal? Can I create my own Linux-box-based PVR that can use the output of a digital HDTV-capable cable box like the Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000HD, considering the fact that it can only output to DVI or YPbPr plus audio in that mode?

More important, is the brick wall I'm hitting an artificial one? Is it just that PC capture cards haven't caught up to the latest technology (I find that hard to believe, but is it true)? Or is this a situation where legal restraints and special interests have handcuffed companies in order to protect content, even though I should be able to record this content according to fair use? In other words, if the card I'm looking for doesn't exist, what is the real reason it doesn't exist?

Have we really gotten to a point where fair use is being eliminated by legal restrictions on technology? I know this has been the goal of many companies for a long time, but it has been subverted in the past by people who stand up for fair use. Unless I'm missing something, this time it seems to have worked. It looks like there is no such thing as a DVI capture card (or equivalent), and this is the result of the deliberate intention of preventing people from capturing high quality content.