A look at sharing recorded TV content in Microsoft's latest OS

Throughout the development of Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE, see my review for more information), Microsoft said that the system's digital video recording (DVR) capabilities could not be used to copy content from the media center PC to another system, either by DVD or across a home network. However, Microsoft noted, consumers could indeed backup their digitally recorded shows, though the content could only be played back on the same media center PC. The reasoning was simple: If the company allowed consumers to make perfect digital copies of TV shows, HBO movies, pay-per-view events, and other copyrighted content, it might be held legally liable by the television networks and other content providers.

In early October 2002, however, the company reversed course, based on feedback from its customers, partners, and even the television industry, the latter of which has a hidden ace up its sleeve regarding copy-protected TV shows (more on that later). So now it's possible to backup, copy, and share content you record with XP MCE. In this showcase, I'll explain how, but first, let's take a look at some of the issues that surrounding Microsoft's capitulation.

Of DRM, copy-protection, and fair use
Concerns about Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology and consumer's so-called fair use rights is reaching an all-time high as I write this, even as the US Congress and Supreme Court debate related issues such as copyright extensions and time limits. The current law is based on a 1979 court case, in which movie companies such as Universal and Disney sued Sony in an effort to have Sony's Betamax VCR removed from stores because of piracy concerns. However, in 1984, the US Supreme Court ruled that home taping of broadcast television shows constituted "fair use" and that such activity was not a violation of the network's exclusive content reproduction rights.

This decision wasn't a slam dunk, however, and the law barely made it through the Supreme Court. First, the main argument brought forward in the case concerned "time shifting," in which VCRs were used primarily as ways to watch TV shows at different times, not as vehicles for sharing or distributing copyrighted content. Also, the court considered the purpose of these recording, which were obviously made solely for personal use. Thus, Universal and Disney were unable to show that giving consumers the ability to time shift content would harm the companies financially. But then, consumers in the early 1980's also couldn't make perfect digital copies of content and distribute them on a global network, as we can today. I suspect the companies could offer a more successful argument today, as the recording industry did during its recent legal slap down of Napster; that company entered into bankruptcy this year thanks to its resounding losses in court.

More important, legal experts say that the Supreme Court's decision dramatically changed the legal definition of fair use at the time, and that most legal scholars of the day felt that home videotaping was, in fact, not fair use. As noted by Fred von Lohmann, the Senior Intellectual Property Attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Supreme Court's decision to allow people to copy entire copy protected works was unprecedented. In fact, US Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, testifying before the Supreme Court just this week, said that a 1998 law extending copyrights another 20 years "favors the [content] creator, as opposed to the person who wants to copy. That is an entirely rational choice for Congress to make." In other words, the rights of content creators supercede the rights of those who wish to copy content for their own use.

In the 1979 court case, the movie companies asked the court to require Sony to include a chip in its VCRs that would detect a "no copy" signal handed down by protected television broadcasts. However, the technology to enable this feature was prohibitively expensive at the time, and von Lohmann notes that, had it been available, the Supreme Court would never have been forced to change fair use laws. Not surprisingly, that technology is available, and in use by TV networks, today. For that and some of the other reasons I mention above, I expect fair use laws to be addressed again by the courts. It could happen soon.

No matter. The law, as it stands today, basically says that consumers have the right to make copies of purchased content for personal use. Consumers have been making custom "mix" cassette tapes for decades, and taping TV shows and movies on TV, as a result. However, with a modern PC and a broadband Internet connection, consumers can also make perfect digital copies of audio CDs, movies, and other content, and distribute it illegally to friends and family. And content creators in Hollywood have been slow to embrace the Internet, because of fears that users will steal their content, share it with others, and drive movie, TV, and music companies out of business. Last year, for the first time, the music industry made less money than it did the year before: The industry blames Internet-based music piracy for this loss of revenues.

To counter Hollywood's reluctance to embrace new technologies, Microsoft and many other companies have created various types of Digital Rights Management (DRM) solutions, which are designed to protect copyrighted content from digital theft, while providing consumers with varying degrees of freedom regarding copying that content to other devices and media. DRM is entirely up to the content creator (or the content distributor, as is more often the case). For example, the company selling a digital version of Peter Gabriel's latest recording online allows consumers to backup the recording, copy it to a portable digital device, and make two CD copies. This is fairly generous, though other content might have more, or fewer, restrictions. I suspect consumers will gravitate toward content that doesn't impose draconian restrictions, letting the market decide which content is popular.

Regarding Windows XP Media Center Edition, it is possible with this new operating system to make perfect digital copies of TV shows. These shows run the gamut from network television programming, such as the NBC schlock like "Friends" and "Will and Grace," to Hollywood movies on HBO and pay-per-view events. Under the original scheme, Microsoft would have allowed consumers to record any show their TV system was capable of displaying, store those shows on the local hard drive, and back them up to recordable DVD or across the network to another PC. What was restricted, however, was sharing. Previously, XP MCE users would be unable to burn a copy of "Friends" and give it to another person, or even play it back on another one of their own PCs. Because the content was protected by DRM, it wouldn't play back on any system but the media center PC on which it was recorded.

Well, that's all changed, and I'll jump off the soapbox. Let's take a look at what's possible in the final, shipping version of XP MCE.

Changes to Windows XP Media Center Edition
In a briefing this week, Microsoft's Tom Laemmel told me that the company opted to drop the DRM requirements in XP MCE in response to feedback from its customers, partners and the industry. "This change will enable greater choice to consumers in how they enjoy their Windows XP Media Center Edition recorded TV programming," a company release notes, "while also providing greater flexibility to broadcasters in specifying the intended use of their programs by consumers."

Instead of DRM, XP MCE will rely solely on a technology called CGMS-A (copy generation management system/analog), which is employed today by all major TV networks. This technology describes the intended usage for analog TV broadcasted content and allows Media Center Edition to apply the appropriate content protection during recording. If content is described as "protected" by CGMS-A, the original Media Center recording restrictions apply, and the user can record, watch, and backup the content on their media center PC but not distribute it to others or watch that content on another system. However, because 99 percent of all television content broadcasted today does not utilize CGMS-A protection, most content recorded by XP MCE can, in fact, be shared. Laemmel notes that pay-per-view events and other similar content is more likely to be protected in the future.

The interesting thing here, of course, is that by relying solely on CGMS-A for content protection, Microsoft is moving the responsibility for intellectual property theft from itself to the TV networks: If the networks don't want users stealing content, then its up to them to protect that content using existing CGMS-A technology. It's a tidy solution.

Because recorded TV shows are stored in the Windows file system as normal data files, it's possible to copy those files (which can be found in C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Documents\Recorded TV by default) to recordable DVD or another PC over the network, and then watch them on other devices. Those devices can be another media center PC, a "normal" PC running Windows XP Service Pack 1 (SP1) and Windows Media Player 9 (WMP 9), or any consumer DVD player (beginning in December; Microsoft will supply an XP MCE via Windows Update to make this latter option possible).

If you copy recorded TV content to another media center PC, the behavior will be identical to that experienced on the original PC; when you double-click on the file's icon, the Media Center application will launch, and the recorded TV show will play. If you copy the recorded TV show to a Windows XP SP1 machine, and double-click on the file's icon, WMP 9 will launch and the recorded TV show will play inside WMP 9. For DVD players, Laemmel told me that users would be able to simply copy the content to recordable DVD, stick the DVD in the player, and watch the content on TV, as you would normally with any DVD movie. I will test this scenario when the final shipping version of HP's media center PC arrives later this month.

In fact, I'm eager to test many aspects of this change. I can imagine recording TV shows before going on a business trip, copying the content to my laptop, and then watching the shows during the flights. It's an exciting change, one that makes the media center PC instantly more valuable to customers.

But how will you know?
One issue I brought up about the changes to XP MCE's copy protection functionality was, how will you know whether a show that you're recording is protected? It would be aggravating to spend the time writing a show to DVD only to discover later on that you can't view it on another PC or DVD player. Laemmel suggested that the icons used to represented protected TV shows might be displayed in a different color (perhaps red; the current icons are green), but admitted that the company should do something to warn users ahead of time. I suggested throwing up a dialog when the recording was initiated, but of course, many recordings occur when no user is present. Perhaps this issue won't be addressed seamlessly until DVD writing is integrated into Windows in the Longhorn timeframe. Then, the system could simply warn you before you attempted to burn protected content. We'll see what happens.

Waiting on the hardware
I'm still waiting on the final HP hardware, which will include a recordable DVD drive and the XP MCE version that allows for freely copying recorded content. When I receive this hardware, I'll expand this showcase with step-by-step information about backing up, copying, and sharing digitally recorded TV shows. See you then!