Texas Instruments Goes Legal On Calculator Hackers: How Dare You Make Our Product Better!

from the seriously? dept

I have to admit that I cannot remember where (perhaps it was in the comments on Techdirt?), but I recently saw a discussion among a few people discussing how odd it is that computers and mobile phones have advanced so much… but scientific calculators still are nearly identical as to what they were decades ago. The state of the art seems to have frozen somewhere in the 1980s. Perhaps it’s because Texas Instruments, one of the major calulator makers out there, goes around threatening people who hack their calculators to run additional software on them. Apparently, the company is sending DMCA takedown notices to people who have posted code for running other software on their TI calculators. This is clearly against what the DMCA was designed to do, but is a consequence of the overly broad (and, frankly, ridiculous) anti-circumvention clause found in the DMCA.

This is a perfect example of how the DMCA is used by companies to prevent innovation, not to stop copying. Notice that there is no “copying” of any TI software going on here. It’s just that in being able to run this software, apparently you need to bypass some protection measures that TI installed. Thus, TI claims, it’s a circumvention and a violation of the DMCA. Of course, as the article (and various experts) note in the article, both the Copyright Office and the courts have often looked down on such blatant misuses of the DMCA, but for now the legal threats worked. The people contacted have removed the code.

Frankly, I can’t fathom how this makes any sense at all for TI. Making its calculators more useful and interesting should only increase demand for the calculators. TI makes its money selling the physical product, not the software on the calculators. So what possible business rationale is there for stopping such hacking? It seems only sure to decrease the market, not increase it.

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Comments on “Texas Instruments Goes Legal On Calculator Hackers: How Dare You Make Our Product Better!”

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A Dan (profile) says:

I know why

Reading some of the comments on the Slashdot article, it makes a lot of sense. The major reason they sell so many calculators is because kids can use them in school, and they’re one of very few calculators allowed. They limit functionality on certain calculators so that they can be used in standardized testing. If the kids could install something so it looks like they don’t have programs to help them cheat, these would no longer be allowed on standardized tests, so they wouldn’t be able to sell nearly as many calculators.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: I know why

If the kids could install something so it looks like they don’t have programs to help them cheat, these would no longer be allowed on standardized tests, so they wouldn’t be able to sell nearly as many calculators.

But that’s got nothing, at all, to do with copyright. That’s a total abuse of copyright.

Ryan says:

Re: Re: I know why

I think he was addressing the perceived business rationale, not the applicability to copyright(for which there is none).

I suppose I can actually see this in a sense–TI calculators are considered the gold standard and a necessity in most math-oriented classes not because the students really think spending $100 bucks on them is worth the money, but because teachers require them. If their calculators were to become much easier to jailbreak and magnify capabilities, then it would be more difficult for teachers and test administrators to immediately gauge this beyond a quick glance at the product type. That, in turn, could lead to new policies perhaps detrimental to TI’s bottom line.

Of course, none of this means that the DMCA is any less bad for society and consumers in general–I’m sure TI could easily add a visual indicator or something if a calculator were modified, or any number of other innovations, but they don’t have to because of copyright enforcements. Showing again why copyrights and patents hinder innovation instead of the other way around. I can understand why interested players will continue to talk up their benefits, but it’s amazing that so many consumers actually believe it. Chalk it up to humans’ natural proclivity for being stupid and gullible.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: I know why

On the one hand if anyone is smart enough to cheat that way then I (as an examiner) wouldn’t be bothered.

On the other hand why on earth do they allow any calculators in tests in the first place?

On the other other hand why don’t TI just make an old fashioned non-programmable calculator for that market?

It seems to me that we have managed to arrive in the worst possible situation where genuine curiosity and ingenuity (surely the pinnacle of educational value) is being stamped on in the interests of allowing the relatively stupid (ie those who need a calculator to do sums) to pass tests set by the lazy (examiners that can’t be bothered to reverse engineer their questions properly) without allowing the really stupid to cheat. (Except that the really stupid couldn’t manage to cheat that way anyway.)

Chargone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 I know why

i know what you mean there, but if i read it Literally, the response is:

‘and if they don’t, they fail’

if memory serves, programmable calculators were expressly forbidden in every exam i ever took where maths was relevant. ‘course, I’m in NZ… which has penguins, and is thus better, but more significantly, seems to be the home of ‘weird takes on normal stuff’… sometimes good, sometimes not…

non-programmable calculators were allowed in a lot of sciences and the like, mind you.

another possible reason calculators haven’t really gone anywhere, is that most of the demand for them is pretty much for something that is highly portable, easy to use, and does [semi-]basic mathematics to reduce careless errors in, say, accounting[or just personal record keeping].

and even a lot of that sort of thing is done on computers these days….

as usual, this comment does not have any particular point ๐Ÿ™‚

TheStupidOne says:

Re: Re: I know why

“On the other hand why on earth do they allow any calculators in tests in the first place?”

Right, because in every advanced algebra or calculus course you must be testing all of the fundamental math as well. I’m sorry, but when I’m thinking about partial differential equations to model a vibrating system I’m not overly concerned about my multiplication tables. I use my calculator to check/do the basics while relying on my intellect to do the advanced work. Plus since it’ll take several minutes without a calculator to solve complicated (yet still considered basic) math with a high degree of confidence you immediately limit the number of topics you are actually testing over because you have a time limit

Of course it goes without question that once you graduate and need to do math for your job you won’t ever be able to use a calculator or even excel, so you better practice doing everything with pen and paper and your brain.

Boss: Is that a CALCULATOR!!??
You: … Yes?
Boss: You’re FIRED!!
You: Here’s the report boss
Boss: The bell rang 5 minutes ago and I saw you talk to Jimmy while you were working on it
You: What bell? and I asked Jimmy for some help.
Boss: WHAT!?
You: Are you ok boss?
Boss: You’re FIRED!!

Boost says:

Re: Re: I know why

Why allow calculators on a math or science test? Well, because, for instance, on a calculus test, students aren’t being tested for their knowledge (or, more importantly, their speed) of algebra or long division.

I once had a professor that would race us at complex math problems. We had high dollar graphing calculators….he had a slide rule. He often won. He also could do 8 digit multiplication in his head as fast as you could do it in your calculator. This man is obviously an outlier and not representative of the general population of people who can do long division of high order numbers in their head in 30 seconds to a minute vs. several seconds on a calculator.

Justin says:

Re: I know why

There is still enough ability on the calculator that you don’t need special programs to hide information on it. I spent many hours in class creating programs that helped me take tests and remember information that was going to be on them. To say that they can’t do this because students might cheat is at least 15 years out of date.

This kinda makes me want to dig mine out again and see what I can do with it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: I know why

Except that can’t be why. I know it’s what TI claims, but it’s pure baloney.

You know why? Because you can easily program the stock calculator to simulate clearing the memory without actually doing so, in a way that is very difficult to detect. So, the situation TI is claiming to be trying to prevent already exists, and has existed for as long as the calculators have been around.

TI’s actual problem is one of image — they benefit from an undeserved reputation of being cheat-proof among educators, and are terribly afraid that the misperception will be corrected.

Anonymous Coward says:

It was me that brought this up, how dare you forget and not give me credit. Now I’m going to sue ๐Ÿ™‚

Here, I mentioned it here


and here


Not to mention here


Richard (profile) says:

Re: Value

Actually I heard from someone that cost in materials (minus labor) of producing a graphing calculator (an accountant actually told me this) is like 15 cents and that most of the value comes from the intellectual property.

Well I would have thought that labour would have been quite a significant cost, also packaging, distribution and retailers cut.

The again the “intellectual property” includes the design of the chips, circuit boards, displays etc not just the firmware. Plus that firmware has probably been around for 25 years now – so it’s paid for itself many times over.

The pricing of these things is basically all “marketing” now anyway. Back in the early 80’s Casio used to sell different grades of calculator at different prices – but they were the same really – the only difference was the printing on the keys and the instruction manual. If you had access to the instruction book for one of the expensive ones you could make the cheap one do all the same stuff!

Anonymous Coward says:

I think this is not acceptable for TI to do. But of course the consequences to TI are small if they lose a case and the consequences to those TI are challenging are potentially HUGE if they lose a case. So TI has little to lose while those who change TI’s software have a lot to lose. Just goes to show how one sided intellectual property laws are in this country, mostly in favor of rich and powerful corporations.

We need to change the law so that TI has as much to lose by stopping innovation as those they suppress.

Anonymous Coward says:

Anti Democratic

You think it would be anti-democratic to make a law that would stripe lawmakers of the powers they have if they tried to pass ridiculous legislation?

Maybe but I think there could still be some set of rules to making laws like asking for a minimal set of standards that require at least that any law that do not achieve some threshold should be automatically strike down or laws should be evaluated on the basis of functionality and not only aesthetics, there’s got to be some kind of process that would make those people in congress look less stupid.

interval says:

Screw ’em. Calculators haven’t advanced because people don’t need ’em. You have a decent smart phone, you probably have a native calc app with it. You have a netbook that runs OSX, Windows, or Linux w/KDE or Gnome, you have a calculator that has way more functionality than most people will ever use anyway. Who needs TI?

Anonymous Coward says:

The main reason that we haven’t seen much innovation in graphing calculators is probably that they can already do too much.

Ever since these calculators have been able to do things like compute integrals or factor or solve equations symbolically, there has been a trend away from allowing students to use them on exams (even aside from the issue of using them to “cheat” by storing notes for closed book exams).

Thus, from the students’ point of view, there’s no real reason to want a more powerful graphic calculator when they couldn’t use it on many exams (and for more demanding computations, their university probably licenses mathematica/maple/matlab/etc. anyway).

Of course, none of this explains why the prices are still so high…

Jesse says:

Who the f cares if we have to stop using TI instruments in high school???? In my experience, they made us buy these overpriced calculators (which have hardly gone done in price even though they are from the 80s), and told us we had to use them to prepare for the university. And then in university we weren’t allowed to use them….soo…is it that big a deal if we have to stop using them all together? I’m sure we’ll be able to figure it out. It’s not worth abusing the DMCA so blatantly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Here's a pro calculator innovation argument

I have seen a case go to a school board once that gave precedent for cheating to be allowed. You might have heard of it. Someone tattooed mathematical formulas and theorems to their forearms.

It’s cheating because it’s having written notes in an exam isn’t it? Oh, but that’s not what the ruling was at all. The ruling allowed it because they defined an exam as a random generic scenario a student might encounter in real life that may for some reason require similar skills. And they concluded that in this random event, there are only two things that are certain at any given time to help them succeed. The first is obviously their brain, and the second is their tattoos. The reasoning was something like “well you’re not going to show up for work one day and forget your arms.”

So using that precedent, I move that TI make a flexible OLED calculator and partner up with the world’s best tattoo artists in order to tattoo this bad boy into your skin! They could make it charge with one of those charging tables once those become more effective. Or by some bio-mechanical conversion of energy. Whichever innovation becomes most successful first because tattooing a touch screen computer in your arm will probably be the last piece of the puzzle that’s ready to go.

ChimpBush McHitlerBurton says:

Open Letter to TI from The New Fake Steve Jobs

Dear TI,

Look, I won’t insult you by coming out and saying that you should know better, but…

Look at the success Apple has had with the iPhone. A BIG part of that success has to do with ENABLING our customers to ENHANCE their experience through MODIFICATION of the device that we sell to them.

Want to have the “iPhone” of the calculator world? Do what we do. Or you may find that someone just gets tired of your shit and writes an iPhone App to replace you.

Think about it.



ChimpBush McHitlerBurton says:

Re: Open Letter to TI from The New Fake Steve Jobs

PS- Please don’t trouble the New Fake Steve Jobs with screeds on how “Closed” the iPhone is.

I will take your point and remind you that however “Closed” the device is, it still has THOUSANDS of third-party Apps, created by a legion of clever programmers and there is no denying that the device and it’s software base has REVOLUTIONIZED the market that it plays in.

This is the point that the New Fake Steve Jobs is making. TI could do well to learn from it. It’s a good point. Don’t mess with the NFSJ.


MCS says:

Re: Re: Open Letter to TI from The New Fake Steve Jobs

You do know that TI is not restricting people from writing programs on their calculators, right? People have been doing it for a very long time. There are THOUSANDS of useless apps for the TI just like there are THOUSANDS of useless apps for the iPhone. And just like TI if you hack the product, Apple gives you the finger (rightfully so).

It is ironic though that you chastise TI and praise Apple for being open (which are not even analogus), yet Apple is the most notorious company for not allowing their customers to modify products they bought.

ChimpBush McHitlerBurton says:

Re: Re: Re: Open Letter to TI from The New Fake Steve Jobs

Well, ignoring the fact that you went ahead and troubled the New Fake Steve Jobs with commentary of how “Closed” the iPhone is…

…and ignoring the fact that you claimed the New Fake Steve Jobs was “praising” Apple for being open, when he did no such thing…

Let us focus on this: Apple is not sending DMCA takedown notices to anyone for hacking their iPhone. They don’t like it, but they aren’t abusing the DMCA to get their way.

Bottom line? TI should create an App Store and provide the ability for folks to have the functionality they want. If users want to subvert their device, TI can go ahead and not like it, and/or take steps to make it more difficult, but abusing the DMCA to achieve what they want is just plain wrong.

This is the point that the New Fake Steve Jobs was making. It was a good point. You missed it, and instead put words in the New Fake Steve Jobs’ mouth to create a straw-man that you could attack with your childish TI FanBoy arguments.

The New Fake Steve Jobs does not approve.

My condolences,



Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Response to Open Letter to TI from The New Fake Steve Jobs


Apple will however soon begin to send these pesky DMCA notices…their appearance before the Copyright Office on May 2nd to argue against DMCA exemptions for jailbreaking only serve to show Apple’s insidious desire to keep the iPhone a closed technology in the name of potential lost profits. They are no worse than TI in this regard.

Besides…I like the EFF’s analogy –


Here’s more on their appearance –


ChimpBush McHitlerBurton says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Response to Open Letter to TI from The New Fake Steve Jobs

Rest assured if Apple starts abusing the DMCA in this same way, they will incur the wrath of the New Fake Steve Jobs. This alone may be reason enough for them to review their plans and opt otherwise.

Apple, you have been warned. From within no less.

Ignore the New Fake Steve Jobs at your peril.



GJ (profile) says:

Calculators are useless, they can only give you answers.

Teachers can move with the times by simply changing the tests: here’s the question, here’s the correct answer. Now show me your reasoning and your methods. You are allowed to use google, but if your answer matches Mike Masnick’s writing style over 85%, you will be ridiculed on facebook for not having a mind of your own. If your answer matches Dark Helmet, you will be given ritalin.

Blackadder: Try to have a thought of your own, Baldrick, thinking is so important. What do you think?

Baldrick: I think thinking is so important my lord.

Current education in a nutshell.

Steve R. (profile) says:

It is Your Property to do with as you Please

We need to debunk the myth that TI and most “sellers” of electronic equipment somehow retain a property right to what you bought. When you buy a product, you obtain a property right to use that product. That means that you have the right to modify it.

We can pull out the usual analogy to the automobile, when you buy the car, you have the ability to make modifications to it. Including the ability to modify the engine.

It’s unfortunate that too many people unthinkingly accept the premise that the manufactures somehow retain an undeserved ownership privilege.

mertz says:

i just spent money on a TI graphing calculator for the first time in my entire life and i didn’t know the company was so anal. i guess i’ll have to return it. i actually like not using a calcular and have managed to get by without needing a graphing one. i don’t undrstand why they won’t allow something like this to happen especially if it’s good for the development of the actual technology used for the calculator. or maybe they’re concerned people are putting eggs on their products or will make it possible for kids to cheat more than they do already (cellphones).

PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

This actually looks like one of those: Don’t tell anyone our trusted security system can’t be trusted. The whole issue seems to be that TIs are trusted because people think you can’t cheat with them. If that is such a huge problem, manufacture a calculator that actually cannot be cheated with instead of manufacturing one that people can. It’s easy. Make the storage memory extractable easily and sell to educational institutions a small device that will accept the storage system and reset it to manufacturer preset. I mean, there will always be ways to crack your security system, but that will be a step in the right direction instead of trying to hide the fact that your product is not what you say it is.

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