TiVoization: Solving a Problem That Doesn’t Exist

One word that Richard Stallman should’ve been too smart to coin is “TiVoization.” This “TiVoization” is one of the factors that led to the new GPLv3. But what did TiVo do to warrant such defamation?


TiVo devices run on Linux. TiVo, in compliance with GPLv2 (under which Linux is licensed), makes available all source code including their changes to any part of the kernel or any other GPL software.

Their own service license notes:

Open Source Software.
Certain components of the TiVo software are subject to the GNU General Public License or other so-called open source licenses (“Open-Source Software”). Open Source Software is not subject to the restrictions in the last sentence of Section 14 (“Title to Software and Intellectual Property”), and is subject to the GNU General Public License (“GPL”) or other license terms, as applicable. In compliance with the terms of the GPL, TiVo makes its modifications to Open Source Software that TiVo uses, modifies and distributes pursuant to the GPL available to the public in source code form at http://www.tivo.com/linux. You are free to use, modify and distribute Open Source Software that is subject to the GPL so long as you comply with the terms of the GPL (available in your user documentation or at http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html)

And the good folks at TiVo are happy to send anyone who asks and pays $15 — a marginal sum to cover their costs, which is allowed under GPL (free as in freedom, not as in beer) — a CD with copies of their kernel and other related software. So far, no problem. FSF cannot fault them for this, even though they’ve defamed TiVo by attempting to fix what’s not broken with respect to “TiVoization” — a non-problem with respect to what GPLv2 covers. Anyone who wants a copy of the GPLed code used by TiVo can get the source.

The problem isn’t even in the software level of things. It’s in the hardware side of it. TiVo uses encrypted signatures as a security measure for updating firmware, code inside the hardware and not part of the operating system. With GPLv3, FSF also becomes FHF — Free Hardware Foundation. Their rationale is that TiVo is obligated to provide full access to their hardware since they use GPL code to run their service. Linus Torvalds has taken a neutral position on this issue, openly respecting the difference between software and firmware (which is hardware-centric) and noting that TiVo hasn’t offended his sensibilities.

The issue of licensing hardware under software licenses is problematic for many reasons. It will limit what people can do to develop new hardware. In order to get the imprimatur of the FSF, they’ll have to open their specs. As Jem Matzan points out in his column which I linked yesterday, who’s going to want to develop games for game systems running under GPL if they’re going to have to reveal their own firmware source as well as offer source for GPL code they use? Nobody is going to want to let someone else come along and use the technologies they’ve developed to be used in competing systems and thereby deny themselves revenue.

Accordingly, this isn’t good for open source — this is good for closed source. Which is why you don’t hear Microsoft or Apple or Sony or Nintendo making much noise in objection to GPLv3.

Moreover, restricting hardware under a software license impedes options available to users and what they can do with their hardware and software. Most users don’t care about licensing, certainly not to the extent of FSF zealots. Many users of Linux today appreciate that it’s as free as in beer as freedom. They have no care about availability of source, much less the ability to compile it (take a look at Distrowatch’s rankings and note how many of the top-rated distros are binary- rather than source-based). They also don’t care if distros (like Mint) include proprietary drivers. They just want ease of use (which is why they’re driven to “automagic” distros like Ubuntu), they’re not puritanical dilettantes who will forego use of their hardware to make a statement.

In reality, users don’t matter in the ivory tower world of the FSF. And with GPLv3, neither do programmers. It’s all about the lawyers. Just take a look at their process for compliance. They’re no different in enforcement than Microsoft or Apple or any other proprietary code vendor.

Which brings me back to TiVo. TiVo isn’t selling closed code, and they’re not keeping secrets changes they make to Linux. They’re selling a product which consumers are free to buy or to not buy. Their devices run mostly on GPLed code, such as the Linux kernel, and they’re in compliance with the GPL by offering source. They’re good neighbors. They’re a company using open source software and succeeding. Nobody is harmed by their service (aside from watching too much television, but their device allows people to fit television to their own schedules) and users’ rights are violated by the free transaction that occurs between them and TiVo.

FSF objects to this free exchange. They’re now bent on restricting how people use open source software and how users can benefit.

And I’ve changed my mind about something I wrote above. Maybe they shouldn’t be called Free Hardware Foundation. They probably shouldn’t be called Free Software Foundation, either. With the restrictions imposed by GPLv3, maybe they should just be called the Software Foundation. They’re no longer pushing freedom, but slavery to their ideology.


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