The Pet Peevo with TiVo

by Nicholas Petreley

I'm sorry to see that my blog entry on recent controversies over freedom turned into a thread about TiVo. But since TiVo seems to be such a hot button, I would like to address that issue directly. I made the point in the discussion that TiVo did not license its hardware under the GPL (duh, GPL is a software license, after all), or even a GPL-like license. So all the fuss about what rights you have with respect to TiVo hardware is nonsense. Sure, you have the right to modify the hardware because you bought it. But you will void your warranty, and TiVo is under no obligation to provide you with the schematic, BIOS, or anything else to make it easy to modify the hardware. Having said that, let's cut through all the posturing about what rights we have, and get to the real issue here, which is what motivated TiVo to use a digital signature, and what would motivate people to modify the TiVo software and run the modified version on a TiVo box.

TiVo has a business model. Two of the most important aspects of this business model include:

  1. Charging its customers a monthly fee for program data, updates,and services.
  2. Collecting usage data for various purposes, including making deals with content providers and advertisers.

If it was easy to modify the TiVo code and run the modified code on your TiVo box, what would people be most motivated to modify? Be honest, here, because we all know that the first thing on people's list would not be to change the background color of the program guide. Here's what most people would want to change:

  1. They would stop the software from sending usage data to TiVo.
  2. They would modify the software to use publicly available program data so that they wouldn't have to pay TiVo a monthly fee.

In short, people want what the TiVo box has to offer without having to support TiVo's business model.

The folks at TiVo aren't stupid. They know these two things would be the first targets for modification. So TiVo made it difficult to run modified TiVo software on the box. Trust me, the folks at TiVo aren't wringing their hands over an evil plot to limit the freedom of it's customers. TiVo's just wants to remain in business, and that means TiVo has to try to prevent people from undermining its business model.

What are your motives?

I can understand why people don't want their TiVo sending usage data. Personally, I don't have a big problem with this. I have nothing about which to be ashamed, and I don't think the folks at TiVo run queries on the database so that they can say, "Hey, did you see this? Nick Petreley recorded three episodes of Dukes of Hazzard this week! Somebody alert the bad taste police!" Yeah, I can see that happening.

But it's a valid complaint because it does invade your privacy. TiVo's motive isn't evil, it's just trying to make money. But it's not evil to want to protect your privacy, either. It is one reason, albeit a very minor one, I am building a MythTV box. That's the logical and ethical solution to this problem. Don't buy a TiVo, or if you have one, stop using it and build a box that doesn't send usage data to anyone.

The fact that TiVo has a business model that is based on a monthly fee is not a valid complaint, however. It's another part of its business model, and it harms no one, because nobody is forcing you to buy the TiVo and use their services. You may not like that business model, but the fact that TiVo makes money on monthly subscriptions is what allows TiVo to create a product that is good enough that you'd want to have it and modify it. Collecting a monthly fee in order to pay your employees to make and provide this product does not constitute an evil motive.

Indeed, one could argue that it is unethical to undermine that business model by modifying their software to circumvent it. You want the best TiVo has to offer without having to comply with the business model that keeps TiVo afloat. Even if you don't think it's unethical, it isn't very smart. If enough people did this, TiVo would probably go out of business, and your source for "the best that TiVo has to offer" that you want to modify would dry up. Either that, or TiVo would switch from Linux to a proprietary operating system in order to stop people from undermining its business model, in which case you would have no ability to use any of its source code on a TiVo box, PC or any other box.

There's nothing wrong with disliking the monthly fee, but the most ethical solution to avoid paying the monthly fee is to buy or build a product that doesn't require a monthly fee. That's yet another reason why I am building a MythTV box.

Objection denied

I fully anticipate someone to point out that TiVo's business model fits one of the descriptions of evil in my other blog entry: "The attempt to satisfy one's own desire for power and/or wealth prohibits others from engaging in perfectly ethical practices, that is evil." The question is, "Is it perfectly ethical to circumvent TiVo's business model after you bought the product knowing that TiVo sustains itself by charging you a monthly fee?" I would argue that it is unethical to circumvent this business model. However, one need not establish that it is unethical to see that what TiVo is doing does not fit the definition of evil.

TiVo isn't prohibiting you from engaging in ethical practices. It doesn't prevent you from watching one show or another. It doesn't prevent you from recording a show for watching later (that is, after all, one of the things it does best). It doesn't prevent you from copying a show to another medium according to fair use. TiVo is complying with the GPL, so it isn't engaging in unethical practices with respect to its use of GPL code. Last, TiVo is not forcing you to buy a TiVo box. Some people have mentioned complaints related to DMCA issues, but if TiVo has to comply with them according to the law, that's a problem with DMCA, not the GPL or TiVo.

Here is a more clear explanation of what I meant by that definition of evil. Suppose DRM were implemented globally such that you could not possibly get the latest album by the band Slug Cookies except through DRM channels (no, there is no such band, at least not that I know of). You have no alternatives. If you want this music, you have to get it through DRM channels, and the DRM prevents you from fair use practices such as transferring the songs from your computer to a CD so you can listen to the songs in your car. This is what I mean by, "The attempt to satisfy one's own desire for power and/or wealth prohibits others from engaging in perfectly ethical practices, that is evil."

The fact is that, today, you can buy an album on CD and engage in all the fair use practices you want. Nobody is forcing you to use a DRM-based method of obtaining the same music. Likewise, you do not have to buy a TiVo in order to enjoy the benefits of having a DVR. You can get a cable box with DVR capabilities. You can build your own box with MythTV, Freevo, or one of the commercial alternatives.

The bottom line is that TiVo made good on its obligations to the GPL. It released its source code. If you don't like what you can or cannot do with that source code, don't download it. If you don't like what you can or cannot do with the TiVo box, don't buy one. You have alternatives. Nobody is restricting your freedom to buy or build alternatives that work exactly the way you want them to work.

Back to the point

For those who missed the point of the other blog entry, or just ignored it, here it is in a nutshell:

I have a feeling that, now that we have finally reached a point in history where most people realize that open source is a Good Thing, the people who used to have to fight over this issue are feeling marginalized and ignored. Perhaps they are feeding their need for attention by finding new controversies to exploit, or by seeking out ways to rail against anything that rubs their open source idealism the wrong way.

I, for one, am glad that we've reached a point where we don't have to fight as hard to make people understand the benefits of open source. Not everyone is educated, and not everyone who is educated at all is fully educated, but I'm glad it's not as big a struggle as it used to be.

I can only hope that people will understand the difference between fighting for the GPL and fighting about DRM. I can only hope that people who understand the superiority of open source will learn to be confident enough about it that they don't have to feel threatened by praise for something that is not open source. We all need to be careful to discern the difference between software, hardware, policies, licenses, and how they are used, and whether or not there is evil intent involved.


I will gladly admit to having bad taste in many respects, but I have never seen an entire episode of Dukes of Hazzard.