Frustrating morning fighting Macrovision

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Yesterday morning I spent a couple of hours trying to bypass the Macrovision copyright protection scheme in a home-made VHS tape. It all started when a relative of mine bought a USB video grabber from Lidl at the beginning of the year and lent it to me.

The USB video grabber is made by SilverCrest and early versions of it were supported under Linux, but the latest models, sold exactly under the same name and packaging, are not supported.

Essentially, it allows you to input a video and audio feed to it using S-Video or Composite connections, or SCART using a proper adapter, and record it as digital video in your computer. The obvious usage is to make digital copies of VHS tapes and analog video camera recordings.

It comes with a licensed but limited version of Cyberlink PowerDirector 9 that should allow you to record video easily from the device, so I offered my grandma the possibility of digitizing a couple of old family videos that were stored in VHS tapes and she could not play, because she only has a DVD player and, believe me, that’s enough.

It turned out that, either by mistake or on purpose, the person who made those VHS copies of the videos put Macrovision protection on them. This shouldn’t have been a problem by itself but, thanks to draconian copyright protection legislation from an entirely different country, PowerDirector actively tries to detect Macrovision and stops recording the feed if it’s detected, displaying the following message:

Copyrighted VHS, recording has stopped

So a solved technical problem becomes an unsolved technical problem.

The rest of the morning turned into a frustrating experience of web searches, forum searches, different proposed solutions until I reached an acceptable one. I attempted to find out if the check could be disabled in PowerDirector, and it can’t. You could overcome the problem in hardware and forever by ordering a Digital Video Stabilizer. Or maybe VLC could record the stream from the device instead of using PowerDirector. Nope, I’m unable to get audio recorded. Yes, I tried all the options I saw everywhere. Twice.

For the record, I was finally able to digitize the videos. I installed VirtualDub (a GPL-licensed versatile video processing tool). It was the only other application able to record both the video and audio from the device. Unfortunately, it only allowed me to record the videos in uncompressed form. This means a 90-minute video could take about 100 GB of hard drive space, which can be a problem, but I had room enough. Later, I used FFmpeg to deinterlace and crop the image, and finally store the videos in compressed high-quality form.

The frustration stems from two different sides. On the one hand, wondering why someone put a copyright protection measure on a family tape (gosh, I appear in the tapes). On the other hand, what’s wrong with the world today and why does the DMCA make people write code to enforce an old and obsolete protection scheme? Disturbing.

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