Recently, we had a rather peculiar “all hands on deck” meeting with the owner of the company I work for. Everyone working in any technology related capacity was told to drop everything and report to his office at a designated time. This included help desk support people, system administrators, software developers, DBA’s and etc. This could only mean one thing – bad news. A buzz went around that we are dealing with a serious security breach. People were expecting heads to roll, and we all started to go through our own personal lists of things we have half-assed, or blew off in the last month or so to work out proper alibi’s or figure out how to pin the blame on someone else. Others were combing through our systems trying to find the fault, breach or failure. Spies were sent out to chat up the secretaries and glean some insight to the mysterious meeting. No one knew what was this all about. It was a very tense morning.
At a designated time we all filed into the big corner office. The foolhardy and self assured sat down on the two or three available chairs, and the mini couch in the corner. The rest of us decided to remain standing in a respectful pose, as if that somehow made us less prone to managerial wrath. The big boss mad sure that everyone was present and accounted for, and then told us the reason we were summoned:
“Guys,” he said “there is this really good show on financial fraud on TV tonight, and I want to show it during the training next week.”
We were floored. Not sure whether to sigh with relief, or roll our eyes we stood there speechless. The combined power of our company’s technology departments was hijacked from daily duties to help the boss tape a TV show. No one said anything. We just stood, slack jawed and incredulous. Unfazed, big boss continued.
“I set my DVR to tape it for me. So what I need you to do is to figure out how to get it out of my DVR and load it up on the TV in the big conference room.”
The assembled army of sysadmins, network specialists, programmers, dba’s and help desk drones started scratching their heads. While most of us were fairly competent in our respective fields, none of us happened to be an audio/visual geek. The only person I knew in the company who always yabbed about his awesome home theater setup was a guy from accounting who was currently on vacation. So we were all a bit confused as to parameters and requirements of this particular task. Some more than others – after all, while the folks responsible for physical hardware may by chance have some knowledge of DVR’s and transferring their contents, you could hardly expect a Java programmer to know anything about it. But alas, if you work with computers, people automatically assume you can also help them with their DVR’s, their surround sound, house alarm, washing machine and etc..
Still, we were smart people so we would figure this out. We all went back to our desks, and went googling. Within a few minutes we realized that the prospects of making this happen were bleak. First off, big boss had a different cable service than we did. So transferring DVR content between providers would be problematic. Furthermore the DVR he had, was locked down tight. While it hard a USB port on the front panel, the specs specific that this port was dead, and reserved for “future use”. A quick call to the cable support line confirmed that there is no legit way to extract the contents and copy them to external media. Furthermore, we couldn’t find any home-brew hacks for that particular model.
Our next idea was to tape it at the office. We would simply set up the DVR in the conference room to record the show, and we would be all set. The only problem was that there was no DVR there. When the equipment was purchased for the office, the big boss specifically requested no DVR boxes – because it’s not like we would ever use them. We could probably order a DVR box from our cable company, but the fastest we could get it was next business day – which would be to late. One of us could tape it at home and then bring our DVR to work, but those with DVR boxes had them on lease from different cable companies. Not to mention that these boxes were bound to specific accounts making such swaps problematic. To make matters worse, none of us had a working VCR we could use.
So our solutions were as follows:
- Run out and buy a 3rd party DVR, a DVD recorder or a VCR
- Run out and buy a TV tuner card for one of the PC’s and rip it that way
Both options required spending money (not a lot of money, but still), so of course they got shot down as quickly as we mentioned them. He kept insisting that there must be a way to transfer the contents between DVR’s and refused to believe his cable company make a product lacking that feature. We ended up calling their tech support again, and quizzing them in his presence and on speaker phone. Big boss remained skeptical, even after two different help desk drones explained to him that they do not allow such a thing. Eventually, he gave up. He decided we were all useless and not deserving our salaries. He kept grumbling about our DVR failure for weeks afterwards, but at least graciously released us and allowed to pursue our regular responsibilities. The whole event was essentially an exercise in high-level office absurdity. But it got me thinking.
If this happened in the 90’s (which is apparently where our boss still resides) any of us could just put a tape into a VCR and then bring it in. We all had these machines in our homes. They were ubiquitous. DVD recorders, while available, and relatively inexpensive never reached such a market penetration. Very few people actually own one, because DVR’s are so much more convenient. In fact the most convenient types of DVR’s are those supplied by your cable company – because they just come with the service. Unfortunately they are also the most locked down ones.
The age of cable issued DVR’s robbed us of our ability to place shift, and format shift our recordings. Cable industry forfeited trying to stop us from time shifting after Sony vs Betamax ruled that it was perfectly legal. Instead they concentrated on place shifting, and format shifting. We got swindled. We have been had. We have been played dirty. We got hoodwinked and we didn’t even notice it.
In 2011 taping a show for someone else is virtually impossible. Not without buying dedicated equipment for that specific purpose. In the 90’s we all had a device hooked up to our TV that recorded our shows and movies onto easily portable media. You could tape something, take it with you and play it anywhere. Today, we have a myriad of proprietary DVR boxes, most of which are bound either to your cable company, or to some other entity (like Tivo) who don’t care about power users. Most of these companies are more than happy to lock down the recorded content in their devices and bind it to a specific account to prevent place shifting and format shifting.
Personally, I haven’t noticed this because I stopped taping stuff from TV around the same time I got broadband internet. High speed connection to the information superhighway gave me “alternative” ways of obtaining movies and TV shows I missed. So this has never particularly bothered me. But while I wasn’t looking the content industry implemented the biggest swindle imaginable. They moved their distribution from read-write media to read only. They graciously allowed us to time shift to our heart’s content, but at the same time making sure we could never move, share or extract our recordings.
In the 90’s the small button labeled “REC” was ubiquitous on home entertainment devices. Your sound system could record to cassette tape. Your home theater set could record to VCR tape. And the tape players were everywhere. Every car had a cassette deck. Every TV in your house likely had an attached VCR. Those times are gone. I dare you to find a single device in your house with a “REC” button that is not a legacy hold-over from the 90’s.
VCR’s are obsolete. So are cassette tapes. And we have nothing to replace them. DVD recorders never took off, and DVR’s are locked down, black boxes we have no control over – bound to the whim of your cable provider and his broadcast flags that tell it which shows it can or cannot record. Average consumer has lost the ability to make permanent, portable records of TV or radio broadcasts.
And while the contend industry dealt a fairly dangerous blow to their customers ability to consume information on their terms, they have not won yet. The only reason why people are not up in arms about this, is because the content they locked up for us, has been liberated by the friendly neighborhood pirates. These “paragons of virtue” make sure that we can actually consume the media we paid for in the way we want to, in spite of entertainment industry’s wishes. The fact that we no longer can tape a movie and take it to a friend’s house seems insignificant when there is a BluRay quality copy available for download on Pirate Bay. Of course not everyone is so lucky.
The people who got fucked by this are the innocents. They are the good guys who have never pirated a thing in their lives. The people who dutifully re-bought their VCR movie collection on DVD, and are now once again re-buying it on BluRay. The technolo-muggles, the clueless and the elderly got the short end of the stick. Back in the 90’s I could tell my grandma to tape a movie for me and she was fully capable of doing it. All it required was putting the TV on the right channel and pressing that little button with the red dot. These days this wouldn’t work. For one, she does not have a DVR because she decided she wouldn’t need one. And even if she had one, I wouldn’t be able to extract it from it. She does not have a DVD recorder, because… Well, who the hell buys these anyway.
This is why the entertainment industry is lobbying so hard to get SOPA signed into law. This is their next logical step – they want to lock down the internet the way they locked down our home theater centers. They want to remove the “REC” button functionality from the the cloud. Of course this will not work, for the simple reason that the internet routes around local damage. Pirates will still exchange liberated content, and most of us will still know where to find it. But it’s not like logic and common sense has ever stopped them.