18 June 2008

My TIVo DRM Rabbit Hole

As I have said before, I love TiVo. It stands on its own as one of the best inventions in media in the past decade or so, and it has become an integral part of my media consumption experience.

However, since the introduction of TiVo To Go, I am often perplexed by the application of DRM technology. In some cases (TiVoCasts) it seems overly strict, in others (TiVo To Go for Portables) it seems like the easiest way to pirate I can think of.

I currently take advantage of the TiVo To Go feature in two ways - 1) I copy content over to my Desktop and external hard drive as just a cheap way of expanding my TiVo storage space. When I have more free time, I transfer them back to TiVo and I'm able to watch the season in order, at my own pace. 2) I convert to a portable format and watch on my Ocean on the T.

But yesterday, I stumbled upon the strangest thing of all. I previously lived in a household with two TiVo boxes under a single account. Now one of those boxes lives in Seattle and one came with me. We transferred account ownership of "Happy TiVo" to my name, to make sure everything was kosher. When that happened, my Media Access Key changed.
[In case you aren't a TiVo To Go User, the Media Access key establishes the trusted relationship between your TiVo and your computer. You can only transfer recordings to a computer with a matching Key. ] I thought that was weird and grudgingly dug through the TiVo menus to get to my new Key and enter it on my Desktop.
That was when I discovered that the two movies and the entire second season of Heroes I had stored on my Desktop were no longer considered valid files and could not be transferred back to the Happy TiVo from whence they came. Strange.
I ended up watching most of the second season of Heroes on my laptop while I was unpacking in my new apartment. By Monday, I had managed to set up all the components of my living room media center and was ready to watch the rest on my big screen.
But when I plugged in the external drive and tried to play them from my Desktop (I have a combo HDTV/giant monitor) Windows Media Player complained that it was an unrecognized format. After appropriate experimentation, I determined that the Media Access Key is not only required to transfer the recordings, but also to play them back! I had just lucked out in that I had not bothered to update the Key on my laptop, so it still matched the old recordings, allowing them to be played back there.

So, my situation is pretty unusual and it has a happy ending, but I think it's a great illustration of how convoluted things get when you try to apply fairly non-subtle forms of DRM to content. After all, I was actually using all the same hardware from start to finish, yet by the end, it was only by fluke that I had not been locked out of content I had every right to access.