SAN FRANCISCO – Many fans of digital video recorders made by TiVo Inc. (TIVO) are beginning to fear that Hollywood studios will one day reach into their set-top boxes to restrict the way they record and store movies and programs.
Among the functions included in TiVo's latest software upgrade is the ability to allow broadcasters to erase material recorded by TiVo's 3.6 million users after a certain date. That ability was demonstrated recently when some TiVo customers complained on TiVo community sites that episodes of "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill" they recorded were "red-flagged" for deletion by the copyright holder.
Some users also were upset that they were prevented from transferring these red-flagged shows to a PC via the TiVoToGo (search) service.
Elliot Sloan, a TiVo spokesman, called the red-flag incident a "glitch" and said it affected only a handful of customers. "It's a non-story," Sloan said.
Nonetheless, skeptics among TiVo users questioned why TiVo would own such a technology unless the company planned to one day use it.
TiVo and other digital video recorders let users skip commercials and jump around a recording quickly. Since TiVo introduced its DVR in the late 1990s, customers have enjoyed the ability to record anything they want and store it indefinitely.
But last year, TiVo quietly disclosed that it would employ copyright-protection software from Macrovision Corp. (MVSN) for pay-per-view and video-on-demand programs. According to a post on TiVo's Web site, the software allows broadcasters to restrict how long a DVR can save certain recordings or in some cases prevent someone from recording altogether.
"Program providers decide what programs will have Macrovision copy protection," said the TiVo post.
Matt Haughey, creator of PVRblog.com, the Web site where the complaints first appeared, said some fans are overreacting about the red-flag incident. However, he said he is worried that TiVo has handed Hollywood (search) a means to restrict recordings.
"TiVo would be of limited utility in the future if the studios were allowed to do this with regular broadcast content," Haughey said. "This is like cell-phone jammers. What if you couldn't talk on your cell phone? If customers can't do something with their TiVo that they could in the past, they will stop using it."
TiVo is among many platforms that could be transformed by the entertainment industry's demands for tighter copyright controls.
Broadcasters have also tried to force electronics manufacturers to insert a technology known as the broadcast flag into new televisions to prevent programs from being copied or disseminated on the Internet.
The Federal Communications Commission (search) at one point required such piracy preventions, but those rules were blocked in May by a three-judge panel for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Congress may get the last word.