Tivoization and the GPL

The original Tivo was one of the finest out of box experiences I've ever had as a consumer. I remember how exciting it was to tell friends about our newfound ability to pause live television, and how liberating it felt to be freed from the tyranny of television schedules. Imagine watching whatever you want, whenever you want! Of course, digital video recorders are no longer the rare, expensive creatures they were back in 2002, so some of that original Tivo luster is irretrievably lost.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2008/02/tivoization-and-the-gpl.html

So, when you BUY a TiVO, what are you really buying? The hardware that happens to run a specific version of open source software, or are you buying the software, too?

Why wouldn’t TIVO set up it’s mechanism to provide weekly updates for a fixed price of 1/4th of the monthly cost, paid when the data is provided? Then if you want it from Tivo, you have to pay. Would the third party suppliers kill that?

I completely agree with the main sentiment: I just wish companies would stop building products that depend on DRM. Just give me a product I can use.

Their product became popular because it was usable and people could do with it what they wanted. TIVO “jumped the shark” when it became locked down.

Competition will arrive and they will copy what you do. TIVO could have stayed on top if they had given users what they wanted instead of locking things down.

Hobbyists are your biggest evangelists. They sell your product for free (actually, they pay to sell your product because they invest so much into it).

I just wish companies would get over this tendency. It’s fear of uncertainty. But capitalism is all about uncertainty. Those who bet on it always win. Those who fight it always lose.

Imagine if people sold you a car, and made it so that it would only work
with their own brand of gasoline. Would you then agree that they made the car,
so it’s their right to deny you your favorite gasoline?
How about if the car would only work with their own MP3 player? Is that OK too?

It certainly is OK, as long as you are aware of the restrictions. Though, I would hope that any car with such a restriction would have some sort of value-add, such as a lower price.

“Since the GPL has a clause forbidding the developer to forbid any “field of endeavour”, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a law forbidding any company from selling anything with a terms-of-use that forbids any field of endeavour?”

No, why would you be in favour of limiting people’s freedom by outlawing such contracts? I should be able to enter into a contract with anyone else under whatever terms we find mutually agreeable. I oppose any attempt to limit my freedom to do so in the name of protecting me (particularly with the ironic intent of giving me more freedom). I am a grown-up, after all.

I find it particularly interesting that from many GPL supporters I hear the refrain, “If you don’t like it’s restrictions, then don’t use GPL software, use something else!” And out of the other side of their mouth they complain about companies putting limitations on products, seemingly without realising that they can always “use something else!” Physician, heal thyself.

“If you want Linux developer opinion, look to the original Linux developer, Linus Torvalds.”

Linus only developed the kernel. Tivo has user land programs that were written by Stallman himself, so I do think that his opinion matters.

Jason: 99% of people won’t Imanually/i hack their hardware to save a few bucks a month.

But you wanna bet how many would do it if they could just download something for free that “all their friends are talking about”, click it twice, and never pay for service again?

A lot more than 1%.

Fake51: If I bought the radio Iknowing that/i it only did the things it did and that I couldn’t modify it, Iyes, I might buy it anyway/i, if the value equation worked out. Remember, related to the previous part of this reply, that something like 99.9% of people Inever ever hack their hardware, period, ever/i. Nor are they even aware of the possibility in most cases.

Complaining that you can’t do something they never said you could do and that people don’t even typically expect to be able to do is… well, kinda pointless. Tivo sure isn’t going to care. You’re not their customer base.

Sam: As far as I know, Tivo still sells plenty of DVRs; people still love their UI, and with an estimated (from Wikipedia) 30-40% of market-share, they don’t really need hobbyist fans at this point. Plus, of course, they have that deal with Comcast…

(Full disclosure: I’ve never owned a Tivo or any DVR.)

The gaping hole in the argument against Tivo-isation is that Tivo doesn’t really have code to contribute back to open source projects. They run a pretty bog-standard kernel. They have their own bootloader. They definitely don’t modify any of the GPLed userland utilities. None of the other Tivo-izers do either.


All Stallman has done is attempt to ban using hardware as a loss-leader with GPL3 software. It won’t work.

“how a company like Tivo could make money if users could simply recompile the Tivo software to stop phoning home and billing them”

Well, ya know, they’d have to write their own OS and software, and stop using (for free) what other people have sweated over.

“everyone’s favorite technology, Digital Rights Management”

Excuse me? Are you a giga-corp spokesman here?

A company like Tivo is free to try to make money that way, but without GPL-licensed code. They are free to choose.

The Tivo subject sounds really complicated as there is software, hardware and a service that you are buying – so who owns what?

As a developer, in which this business has been good to me, I wanted to contribute back to the industry with an open source project where the software I produce is free to everyone to use as they wish: http://www.codeplex.com/gsb

While researching open software licenses, I was overwhelmed with the number of them and how each one was slightly different – to the point where I just picked one on gut feel alone: http://www.opensource.org/licenses/alphabetical

I picked GPLv3, only hoping that it does what I want it to do and that is make the software free to anyone to use it anyway they see fit…

However, it does not seem this simple and in the case of Tivo, it seems so overly complicated that there never will be a satisfactory answer to Tivoization. It seems our software world could use some real industrialization to overcome our perceived intellectual property rights.

The GPLv3 is the developers deciding how they do or do not want their software. If they don’t like it then there are pretty of other pieces of software they can use and pay for.

If their business model relies on the economics of free software then they are constrained by the ethics of that community.

Someone else mentioned already that Linus Torvalds has talked about GPL 3 a lot already. I remember reading from reddit (I think) a thread where he was explaining his views. I found this thread, which wasn’t the same but has most of what I remembered from back then:


If I correctly understand what he wrote, he feels GPL 3 is more restrictive because it gives the hardware vendors less freedom to do with the software what they want. And while as Jeff pointed out in the article that this can be annoying, I tend to agree with Linus.

It would be great if hardware and software vendors gave us more freedom with their devices to expand their uses with 3rd party additions and custom modifications, but in the end it is their choice, right? Support the companies that give you freedom, and maybe we will have a future where companies will default to giving you the freedom because customers have spoken (with their wallets) that they want it.

Well, my sympathies for you. I would never accept having companies dictate to me what I can or cannot do with what I have legally purchased from them. I buy it, it becomes mine. You might as well tell me that the next time I buy a book or a cd that I can’t throw either away because “my use of these items is restricted”. No, you buy it, you own it, done deal.
I’m not arguing that you should be accommodated in your efforts to do whatever you want with your TiVo. But if you bought the thing then it’s yours: open it, hack it, break it, burn it or just plain use it. It doesn’t matter, it’s yours and you’re free to do with it what you want as long as you purchased it legitimately. Screw anybody who tries to take away your basic rights.


I’m not a linux fanboy, far from it, but the GPL ideology is clear, and if you want to reap its benefits, you have to play by its rules. Tivo has the option to use any other embedded OS and software it wants, but it went for the least cost option without due consideration to the GPL, and in my book that stinks, however good the product might be. I recall Google being held to account for milking the OSS ecosystem, and they subsequently started to contribute back. Obviously there’s a difference in scale, but not in principle.

My opinion on GPLv3 is still a bit mixed.

On the one hand, nothing that Tivo did doesn’t allow you to do the same thing. Tivo made their own hardware, installed Linux on it and sold it.
With GPLv2 you can do the exact same thing: make your own hardware, install Linux and sell it.

I am against DRM, but what RMS tries to accomplish with GPLv3 is overreaching a bit. Now Tivo should not hinder you to install your own version of Linux on your Tivo hardware.
Some remarks on that:

  • you bought the hardware (and included software) as is: it is a recording device with known features. If you want extras, expect to pay for them or make your own hardware to make that possible.
  • How far should they go to make it possible to install another Linux version? Burning everything in a ROM for cost saving should allowed no? Probably not according to GPLv3.
  • removing the JTAG port on production models, again for cost savings, should be possible? Again probably not according to GPLv3.

I’m not sure on those last 2 statements, but I just want to demonstrate that the embedded devices world is completely different from the standard pc world.
In my company we have several times worked for months on a feature in software, just to save 1 chip in each device sold.

Just like DRM is a technical solution to a social problem, I think GPLv3 is a technical solution to a social problem. If you don’t want DRM, don’t buy it! It really is as simple as that!

The problem is that Tivos business model relied on people not being able to subvert the code, and the code required them to allow people to subvert it …

What they needed to do is provide a service that people were willing to pay for and then they would have no problem, instead they DRMed the box so they were paid for allowing people to use their own boxes …

This is how GPLed software works, you can’t lock people in by locking down the system, instead you have to actually provide a service they are willing to pay for (support, extras etc …)

I still use a VHS recorder.

marko He’s being sarcastic, dude. Don’t take his words literally.

“I may not like it, but it’s their hardware, not mine. They can build whatever protections into it they want, right?”

It is sad that you think like that. Did you get the TiVo for free? Probably not. If you bought the TiVo, it’s your hardware, not theirs. Even if you were told you are only “leasing” or “licensing” the hardware, in fact you paid for this hardware, and it should be yours to control and use in every way you want.

Imagine if people sold you a car, and made it so that it would only work with their own brand of gasoline. Would you then agree that they made the car, so it’s their right to deny you your favorite gasoline?
How about if the car would only work with their own MP3 player? Is that OK too?

You bought it. It’s your hardware, not their hardware.