The Big DVR Swindle

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:

  1. Run out and buy a 3rd party DVR, a DVD recorder or a VCR
  2. 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.

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12 Responses to The Big DVR Swindle

  1. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    All the laws, all the lobbying, all the anti-piracy bullshit never was about stopping pirates. They are not that stupid to think that they could effectively stop piracy, it’s impossible. They are just hoping to milk those honest customers for as much as possible.
    They can’t stop “Blackbeard the pirate” from making their content available to millions. But they sure can stop “Billy the kid” from sharing it with his friend “Freddy”. So that “Freddy” now has to spend his money.

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  2. i still think that DVRs aren’t here to stay. What i more see to take the lead are Places where you buy/rent/illegally-download some kind of video/audio and since this is so similar to “i bought this DVD”, people will continue to keep it on own Harddrives.

    Either that or we will part in two halves of society: those that pirate and those that don’t. If that happens i don’t really think that these “halves” will be equal size.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    The biggest problem with this is that to make this happen for the internet, they would have to make our computers work the way DVR’s do – ie be completely useless. And you can’t do that without wrecking the internet, and ruining the personal computer and basically just throwing away a significant part of our GDP. Our government is perfectly willing to help them do this though, because they pay for their campaigns.

    Last time I checked the internet media companies contribute close to 20% of GDP, whereas hollywood and music industry put together only average under 5%. And yet our politicians are more than happy enough to essentially switch off the internet and wreck the online economy because of the fat paychecks they are getting from their RIAA and MPAA owners.

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    The half that doesn’t pirate does not exist in my experience. It all boils down to methods and availability. Technology-clueless people who can’t figure out torrents buy bootleg DVD’s off the street. Those unwilling to spend money watch shady streams. Those who do neither benefit from piracy of her family members and peers.

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  4. ths GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I have 2 satellite DVRs from a german company “comag”, one single-channel PVready (i.e. with USB connector for external media, price was ~70 Euro 3 years ago) and one dual-channel with harddisk *and* USB (still available at e.g. amazon for ~200 Euro “Comag PVR2 /100 TWIN PVR 400GB”).
    The recorded content can be exported as .dvr files to external media, and can be converted to .ts files (ts=transport stream).
    VLC can play .ts files, or you could convert .ts to .avi or other video format with a java program called “ProjectX”.

    There’s an OSS project for Linux called VDR – video digital recorder, promoted by c’t magazine. If you have a TV card supported by Linux (e.g. Brooktree chipset) this is great stuff! You can add as many TV cards as your PC hardware supports to record and/or view multiple channels simultaneously.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ ths:

    Nice! Things like that definitely exist, and a lot of people are making use of them. But, they are not ubiquitous. Most people in US have either Tivo, a DVR from their cable provider or nothing.

    Not to mention the fact that extracting recordings from a device that allows this, and converting them to playable format is beyond most people – unlike the VCR’s which were rather uncomplicated and even older people could be reliably trained to record TV-shows manually.

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  6. Victoria Netscape Navigator Mac OS says:

    well, we’re still the Old World :) my dad owns a DVD recorder with a built-in HDD that is automatically recording the channel it’s on all the time. My mom makes me download torrents of movies she likes – they also have a home hd player, so I use a large USB drive to transport those movies for her. But, we’re all pirates that way :)

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  7. aleks UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    1) Why didn’t you physically pull the HD out of that DVR, then plug it into your handy-dandy ESATA port/Open your desktop’s case and plug into IDE/etc, and liberate content till the cows came home? Do they use some proprietary bullshit format?

    2) MythTV. My personal favorite open source DVR software: runs great on ubuntu, plays nice with el cheapo video hardware, and (for very power users) renders obsolete all this cable company bullshit.

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  8. s1n UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Why don’t you just bring his DVR into work and hook it up to the TV. The DVR functionality should work whether you get a cable signal or not.

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Victoria:

    Back when the Passion of Christ came out, my aunt borrowed a shaky-cam bootleg from a friend so that grandma could watch it. I found the mix of religion and unethical copyright infringement a bit ironic, but no one else seemed to notice. Piracy is a social problem – not something you can legislate away or fix with thechnology.

    @ aleks:

    I’m fairly sure they use some sort of proprietary format. Not to mention that the device is likely leased from the ISP so opening it up would probably void warranties, and etc…

    @ s1n:

    I guess that could have potentially worked, but I don’t own a DVR, and I don’t think anyone else who did actually wanted to bring it to work and leave it in the conference room for a week. :P

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  10. StDoodle UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Ah, your boss has Uverse too, eh? I put hours into trying to figure out the same thing shortly after getting said service. Ugh. I also, just two weekends ago, ran a shitload of cable down through the basement and back up again so I could watch tv in my computer room (I only have room for a tiny-ass tv in here, and I just like it for background noise, so I couldn’t justify another $5/mo.). Someday, when I have extra money again (*sigh*), I’ll be going with a non-provider box, but for now… :(

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  11. s1n UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    No, what I meant was let your boss record it on his DVR and then have him bring his DVR into work and play the movie directly from his DVR onto a television. That seems like the cheapest and simplest solution to me.

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  12. James P Dehnert UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    Your being a bit harsh on TiVo. TiVo has clients for both Mac and PC that will allow you to download content from your TiVo to your computer. I know on my Mac that I can burn that content onto a DVD (or blue ray) and watch it anywhere I like. I’m pretty sure that capability is also available for the PC.

    TiVo is also quite open to hacking for the more technical minded folks. TiVo, the company seems to be OK with this as long as folks aren’t trying to hack around the the one thing that makes them money, that being the TV schedule. A quick Google of “TiVo hacks” will keep your inner geek wound up for weeks.

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