Unbeknownst to most consumers, the world of cable TV is currently going through a technological and legal revolution that, if things continue on their present course, could render obsolete just about any device that can take a feed from a cable box. For example, your TV set.
Proponents of these obsoleting digital rights management (aka C.R.A.P., also see CRAP, the movie) technologies (and the laws that would mandate their use) argue that the outbound connector on your cable box, the one that goes to your TV, is the equivalent of an analog hole through which copyrighted programs can escape onto the Internet where they can be remixed or stripped of the advertising that supports their broadcast in the first place. It doesn't take much. Some inexpensive and easy to obtain gear for turning those programs into downloadable files and the will to ignore the rights of copyright holders.
To close the so-called analog hole, certain sectors of the television and movie industry are advocating the encryption of the path from the back of your cable box to the TV in a way that could require virtually everyone to buy a new TV or, in the case of computers, a new tuner card that essentially adapts the cable box's output to a computer's display. To get an industry insider's take on these worrisome developments, I checked in with Hauppauge Technologies CEO Ken Plotkin.
For close to 15 years, Hauppauge Technologies has been manufacturing some of the most popular tuner cards -- one of which is known as WinTV -- on the market. Should the proverbial analog hole get closed by a combination of technologies and laws, Hauppauge and other companies like it would have to adjust in ways that Plotkin, based on my interview of him, would rather not contemplate. Said Plotkin:
There will still be a market, and a very large market, for people that either get satellite TV, set top boxes, or even cable TV set top boxes and will like to connect them into their current TV set. I don't believe either the FCC or CableLabs [the industry consortium that's develops analog hole closing technologies] is planning to obsolete 150 million sets in the United States in the near future....we believe that [attempting to technologically close off the analog hole] is a mistake. The consumers for the last 20 years have been used to recording their favorite television shows on initially VHS tapes, then a few years ago TiVo came out with their recorders, Hauppauge has been able to record television onto a computer's hard drive for about 12 or 13 years now, so the technology and the use of this has been around for a number of years and I believe that if the US government tried to tell consumers that they could no longer record their television shows on let's say a VHS tape, that that would be problematic. I think that from a political point of view that would be a problem. They could attempt to do it and I can't guarantee that that wouldn't happen.
Throughout the interview (available as an MP3 that can be downloaded, or, if you’re already subscribed to ZDNet’s IT Matters series of audio podcasts, it will show up on your system or MP3 player automatically (See ZDNet’s podcasts: How to tune in), Plotkin says that "common sense will prevail." But will it? Surely, common sense, particularly when it comes to lawmaking, hasn't prevailed in the past. Why should it now? Particularly with stealthy and nuanced technologies and laws where the benefits and downsides are not well understood in consumer-land. While Plotkin agrees that copyright holders deserve protection, he says doing it through the proposed technologies and laws is the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to squash a bug. Meanwhile, the legal and technological lockdown train rolls on.