Buy a car, and no matter how high-tech it is, or from which Giz World you bought it, no one asks you to treat the car’s internal design as some kind of intellectual property that doesn’t belong to you. You are completely free to take it apart and modify it as you will. Buy one of several kinds of cool electronic gadgets, a video game console, a smartphone, and the most you are allowed to do with it legally, is to use it for the purpose intended. Earlier this year Sony took hardware hackers to court – people like George Hotz – who published tips and tricks on a website on how to jailbreak the PlayStation 3 and play unauthorised games on the device. And Sony won. And then, they took the entire Fail0verflow hacker collective to court, all hundred hackers, for retrieving and publishing security codes that would allow anyone to run any kind of software (not just games) on the PlayStation. At first, the hackers involved were confident that radically restricted personal freedoms such as what is this lawsuit asks for would never get anywhere, especially in America (and especially when the courts allowed this kind of thing with smartphones). The big surprise was that not only did Sony win against all of these people, they are now asking to be compensated for whatever money they lost in game sales when people read those tips and tricks and stopped buying titles for the PlayStation 3.
Why do manufacturers want to keep you out of the cool electronic gadgets you paid good money to own? And if it’s such a terrible blow to a company to have hackers do with their machines as they will, why do some other companies welcome having their products jail broken by tech savvy enthusiasts? For instance, the same Sony that wants to keep you out of its PS3 wants very badly to have the developer community take control of its Move game controller. And Microsoft has opened up its Kinect motion sensing gaming controller device to developers as well. Of course, this isn’t about anyone hacking into these devices. These companies are just opening their products up for third-party development.
And there are all kinds of wonderful new ways in which these cool electronic gadgets are being re purposed by developers. Take what researchers at a certain British University did to the Kinect, when they were allowed to mess with new kinds of software for it. They turned it into a sensor for a robot that they intended to use in dangerous places for rescue work. Their old robot couldn’t even sense the space it was in a 3-D. And its sensor cost thousands of dollars. The robot equipped with a Kinect as its eyes is remarkably cheaper.
So is it fair for the manufacturers of these cool electronic gadgets to sometimes keep you out of the device you paid money to buy? The thing is, you only technically own the gadgets you buy. You might own the physical hardware; but the software that makes it run – the firmware, the basic operating system and everything that you use to re-purpose the device or to run new software on it – belongs to the company. And the company doesn’t want anyone doing anything with its software that could cost it in profits. Technically, it’s a sound argument, even if intuitively, it might make little sense. Sony claims that if they allow people to make their own changes to the firmware, games played on the PS3 could conceivably be compromised and allow certain people to win by default. Those kinds of piracy situations would make video games in general, less enjoyable, they say.