TiVo’s dust up with Dish may get all of the ink love, but in reality, it represents a very small part of their patent portfolio. Between their trademark filings, their patent applications and their aggressive open market acquisitions, TiVo has managed to build a very impressive intellectual property portfolio around their technology. They haven’t always had the cash to defend this moat, but with damages from TiVo’s potential patent award against Dish, now up to $130 million it could free up a lot of cash to go after other infringers, if Dish loses their appeal.
Some of TiVo’s patents have obvious applications and some of them are really held more for defensive purposes, but it’s the bizarre ones that I find most interesting and on Tuesday, TiVo was issued a patent for a method of locking down hard drives, that involves creating a password, that is so hard to guess, it would take longer than the expected life of your hard drive for someone to crack. According to the patent document, the method is described as the following.
“An authentication system for securing information within a disk drive to be read and written to only by a specific host computer such that it is difficult or impossible to access the drive by any system other than a designated host is disclosed. While the invention is similar in intent to a password scheme, it significantly more secure. The invention thus provides a secure environment for important information stored within a disk drive. The information can only be accessed by a host if the host can respond to random challenges asked by the disk drive. The host’s responses are generated using a cryptography chip processing a specific algorithm. This technique allows the disk drive and the host to communicate using a coded security system where attempts to break the code and choose the correct password take longer to learn than the useful life of the disk drive itself.”
At first the whole thing seems pretty silly to me, but when I think about it, I see two ways that TiVo could take this technology.
The Glass Half Empty – It’s pretty clear that the studios don’t like consumers having control over
their our content. When TiVo first introduced TiVo to Go, there were rumblings that Hollywood would sue them over it. Since than, this rhetoric has turned out to be nothing but empty threats. Nonetheless, TiVo was forced to make compromises. When it comes to HDTV, the studios have drawn a line in the sand and consider it sacred. They will not allow consumers to take HDTV content to go (even though we have fair use rights to what we’ve paid for ) Is it that TiVo is in a shakedown with the studios and has implemented these protections to make sure you can’t just unplug your external drive and give it to your friends or is this the secret sauce behind the DRM that prevents you from taking Amazon movies and watching it on an iPod? When it comes to these issues, TiVo has been forced to walk a fine line between pleasing their customers and keeping the studios off their backs and while there are certaininly a wide variety of ways that you could use this technology, it could also be abused in the wrong hands.
The Glass Half Full – From the very start, security has been a big focus for TiVo. They want their customers to be safe. From the get go, they knew that they had to build a network where people didn’t have to worry about pop up viruses. You hear a lot about different hacks on TiVo, but you never hear about anyone actually being able to hack into TiVo’s internal systems, so that they can take control of other people’s DMRs. A secure connection between a consumer and TiVo is not just essential for their customer’s privacy, but it’s a requirement for allowing TiVo to utilize transaction related advertising. There will always be mischief makers who want to wreck havoc on a system, but if you can lockdown the content, it will go a long way towards preventing people from doing damage.
I think that this is a very creative patent, but in all honesty, I don’t know enough about the Technology behind this patent, to have any idea of what this could really be used for. The real answer probably lies in a grey area that exists outside either explanation. Given TiVo’s history of standing up for consumer rights, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Security on a DMR is just as important as security on a computer and my non-technical guesstimate is, that this patent represents technology that was implemented a long time ago. It’s kind of a quirky idea, but I’ve come to expect nothing less from the people who reinvented television.