Rolling Old School with Copy Protection from the 1980s

Oh, for the old days when sailing the seas of piracy was as simple as hooking a couple of VCRs together with a dubbing cable. Sure, the video quality degraded with each generation, but it was so bad to start out with that not paying $25 for a copy of “Ghostbusters” was a value proposition. But then came The Man with all his “rules” and “laws” about not stealing, and suddenly tapes weren’t so easy to copy.

If you’ve ever wondered how copy protection worked in pre-digital media, wonder no more. [Technology Connections] has done a nice primer on one of the main copy protection scheme from the VHS days. It was dubbed “Analog Protection System” or “Analog Copy Protection” by Macrovision, the company that developed it. Ironically, Macrovision the company later morphed into the TiVo Corporation.

The idea for Macrovision copy protection was to leverage the difference between what a TV would accept as a valid analog signal and what the VCR could handle. It used the vertical blanking interval (VBI) in the analog signal, the time during which the electron beam returns to the top of the frame. Normally the VBI has signals that the VCR uses to set its recording levels, but Macrovision figured out that sending extra signals in the VBI fooled the VCR’s automatic gain controls into varying the brightness of the recorded scenes. They also messed with the vertical synchronization, and the effect was to make dubbed tapes unwatchable, even by 1985 standards.

Copy protection was pretty effective, and pretty clever given the constraints. With Digital Rights Management, it’s easier to put limits on almost anything — coffee makers, arcade games, and even kitty litter all sport copy protection these days. It almost makes us nostalgic for the 80s.

Continue reading “Rolling Old School with Copy Protection from the 1980s”

Copyright Exception May Overrule Ability To Jailbreak 3D Printers

At the end of October, the US Patent and Trademark Office renewed a rule allowing anyone to ‘jailbreak’ a 3D printer to use unapproved filament. For those of you following along from countries that haven’t sent a man to the moon, a printer that requires proprietary filament is DRM, and exceptions to the legal enforceability DRM exist, provided these exceptions do not violate US copyright law. This rule allowing for the jailbreaking of 3D printers contains an exception so broad it may overturn the rule.

A few months ago, the US Copyright Office renewed a rule stating that using unapproved filament in a 3D printer does not violate US Copyright law. The language of this rule includes the wording:

‘The exemption shall not extend to any computer program on a 3D printer that produces goods or materials for use in commerce the physical production of which is subject to legal or regulatory oversight…” 

This exception is extraordinarily broad; any 3D printers can produce aircraft parts (subject to FAA approval) and medical devices (subject to FDA approval). In effect, if a 3D printer has the ability to produce objects subject to regulatory oversight, the exception allowing the use of filament not approved by the manufacturer does not apply. Additionally, it should be noted that any object produced on a 3D printer that is subject to regulatory oversight is already regulated — there’s no reason to drag the Copyright Office into the world of 3D printed ventilation masks or turbine blades.

[Michael Weinberg], ‘legal guy’ for Shapeways and President of the Open Source Hardware Association has filed a petition with the US Copyright Office, asking the Office to eliminate this exception to the existing rule surrounding DRM and 3D printers. You are encouraged to submit a comment in support of this petition by March 14th.

A Bit Of Mainstream Coverage For The Right To Repair

Here at Hackaday, we write for a community of readers who are inquisitive about the technology surrounding them. You wouldn’t be here if you had never taken a screwdriver to a piece of equipment to see what makes it work. We know that as well as delving inside and modifying devices being core to the hardware hacker mindset, so is repairing. If something we own breaks, we try to work out why it broke, and what we can do to fix it.

Unfortunately, we live in an age in which fixing the things we own is becoming ever harder. Manufacturers either want to sell us now hardware rather than see us repair what breaks, or wish to exercise total control over the maintenance of their products. They make them physically impossible to repair, for example by gluing together a cellphone, or they lock down easy-to-repair items with restrictive software, for example tractors upon which every replacement part must be logged on a central computer.

This has been a huge issue in our community for a long time now, but to the Man In The Street it barely matters. To the people who matter, those who could change or influence the situation, it’s not even on the radar. Which makes a piece in the British high-end weekly newspaper The Economist particularly interesting. Entitled “A ‘right to repair’ movement tools up“, it lays out the issues and introduces the Repair Association, a political lobby group that campaigns for “Right to repair” laws in the individual states of the USA.

You might now be asking why this is important, why are we telling you something you already know? The answer lies in the publication in which it appears. The Economist is aimed at politicians and influencers worldwide. In other words, when we here at Hackaday talk about the right to repair, we’re preaching to the choir. When they do it at the Economist, they’re preaching to the crowd who can make a difference. And that’s important.

You may recognise the tractors mentioned earlier as the iconic green-and-yellow John Deere. We’ve written about their DRM before.

Neon sign, All Electronics Service, Portland, Visitor7 [CC BY-SA 3.0].

Impression Products V. Lexmark International: A Victory For Common Sense

A few months ago we reported on a case coming before the United States Supreme Court that concerned recycled printer cartridges. Battling it out were Impression Products, a printer cartridge recycling company, and Lexmark, the printer manufacturer. At issue was a shrinkwrap licence on inkjet cartridges — a legal agreement deemed to have been activated by the customer opening the cartridge packaging — that tied a discounted price to a restriction on the cartridge’s reuse.

It was of concern to us because of the consequences it could have had for the rest of the hardware world, setting a potential precedent such that any piece of hardware could have conditions still attached to it when it has passed through more than one owner, without the original purchaser being aware of agreeing to any legal agreement. This would inevitably have a significant effect on the work of most Hackaday readers, and probably prohibit many of the projects we feature.

We are therefore very pleased to see that a few days ago the Supremes made their decision, and as the EFF reports, it went in favor of Impression Products, and us, the consumer.  In their words, when a patent owner:

…chooses to sell an item, that product is no longer within the limits of the monopoly and instead becomes the private individual property of the purchaser, with the rights and benefits that come along with ownership.

In other words, when you buy a printer cartridge or any other piece of hardware, it is yours to do with as you wish. Continue reading “Impression Products V. Lexmark International: A Victory For Common Sense”

Juicero: A Lesson On When To Engineer Less

Ben Einstein, a product designer and founder at Bolt, a hardware-based VC, recently got his hands on a Juicero press. This desktop juice press that only works with proprietary pouches filled with chopped fruits and vegetables is currently bandied in the tech press as evidence Silicon Valley has gone mad, there is no future in building hardware, and the Internet of Things is a pox on civilization. Hey, at least they got the last one right.

This iFixit-style tear down digs into the Juicero mixer in all its gory details. It’s beautiful, it’s a marvel of technology, and given the engineering that went into this machine, it was doomed to fail. Not because it didn’t accomplish the task at hand, but because it does so with a level of engineering overkill that’s delightful to look at but devastating to the production cost.

Continue reading “Juicero: A Lesson On When To Engineer Less”

Arch Your Eyebrow at Impression Products V. Lexmark International

When it comes to recycled printer consumables, the world seems to divide sharply into those who think they’re great, and those who have had their printer or their work ruined by a badly filled cartridge containing cheaper photocopy toner, or God knows what black stuff masquerading as inkjet ink. It doesn’t matter though whether you’re a fan or a hater, a used printer cartridge is just a plastic shell with its printer-specific ancilliaries that you can do with what you want. It has performed its task the manufacturer sold it to you for and passed its point of usefulness, if you want to fill it up with aftermarket ink, well, it’s yours, so go ahead.

There is a case approaching the US Supreme Court though which promises to change all that, as well as to have ramifications well beyond the narrow world of printer cartridges. Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International, Inc. pits the printer manufacturer against a small cartridge recycling company that refused to follow the rest of its industry and reach a settlement.

At issue is a clause in the shrink-wrap legal agreement small print that comes with a new Lexmark cartridge that ties a discounted price to an agreement to never offer the cartridge for resale or reuse. They have been using it for decades, and the licence is deemed to have been agreed to simply by opening the cartridge packaging. By pursuing the matter, Lexmark are trying to set a legal precedent allowing such licencing terms to accompany a physical products even when they pass out of the hands of the original purchaser who accepted the licence.

There is a whole slew of concerns to be addressed about shrink-wrap licence agreements, after all, how many Lexmark owners even realise that they’re agreeing to some legal small print when they open the box? But the concern for us lies in the consequences this case could have for the rest of the hardware world. If a precedent is set such that a piece of printer consumable hardware can have conditions still attached to it when it has passed through more than one owner, then the same could be applied to any piece of hardware. The prospect of everything you own routinely having restrictions on the right to repair or modify it raises its ugly head, further redefining “ownership” as  “They really own it”. Most of the projects we feature here at Hackaday for example would probably be prohibited were their creators to be subject to these restrictions.

We’ve covered a similar story recently, the latest twist in a long running saga over John Deere tractors. In that case though there is a written contract that the farmer buying the machine has to sign. What makes the Lexmark case so much more serious is that the contract is being applied without the purchaser being aware of its existence.

We can’t hold out much hope that the Supreme Court understand the ramifications of the case for our community, but there are other arguments within industry that might sway them against it. Let’s hope Impression Products v. Lexmark doesn’t become a case steeped in infamy.

Thanks to [Greg Kennedy] for the tip.

Lexmark sign by CCC2012 [CC0].

The Icon Of American Farming That You Now Have To Hack To Own

If you wanted to invoke American farming with colour, which colours would you pick? The chances are they would be the familiar green and yellow of a John Deere tractor. It’s a name that has been synonymous with US agriculture since the 1830s, when the blacksmith whose name appears on the tractors produced his first steel plough blade. The words “American icon” are thrown around for many things, but in the case of John Deere there are few modern brands with as much history to back up their claim to it.

A trip across the prairies then is to drive past Deere products in use from most of the last century. They will still supply parts for machines they made before WW2, and farmers will remain loyal to the brand throughout their lives.

Well… That used to be the case.  In recent years a new Deere has had all its parts locked down by DRM, such that all maintenance tasks on the tractors must be performed by Deere mechanics with the appropriate software. If your tractor breaks in the field you can fit a new part as you always have done, but if it’s a Deere it then won’t run until a Deere mechanic has had a look at it. As a result, Motherboard reports that American farmers are resorting to Ukrainian-sourced firmware updaters to hack their machines and allow them to continue working.  An icon of American farming finds itself tarnished in its heartland.

We’ve reported on the Deere DRM issue before, it seems that the newest development is a licence agreement from last October that prohibits all unauthorised repair work on the machines as well as insulating the manufacturer from legal action due to “crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software”. This has sent the farmers running to illicit corners of the internet to spend their dollars on their own Deere electronic updating kits rather than on call-out fees for a Deere mechanic. Farmers have had centuries of being resourceful, this is simply the twenty-first century version of the hacks they might have performed decades ago with baler twine and old fertiliser sacks.

You might ask what the hack is here, as in reality they’re just buying a product online, and using it. But this is merely the latest act in a battle in one industry that could have ramifications for us all. Farmers are used to the model in which when they buy a machine they own it, and the Deere DRM is reshaping that relationship to one in which their ownership is on the manufacturer’s terms. How this plays out over the coming years, and how it affects Deere’s bottom line as farmers seek tractors they can still repair, will affect how other manufacturers of products non-farmers use consider DRM for their own business models.

Outside the window where this is being written is a Deere from the 1980s. It’s a reliable and very well-screwed-together tractor, though given the subject of this piece it may be our last green and yellow machine. Its dented badge makes a good metaphor for the way at least for us the brand has been devalued.

Thanks [Jack Laidlaw] for the tip.