Just say no to black boxes

When the PS3 was released, one of its advertised features was that you could install Linux on it and use it as a Linux computer. I doubt many people did it, but it was a useful feature for those who did.

Sony later took that ability away in a firmware update. You could choose not to install that later firmware, but then you gave up other capabilities.

Now, some enthusiasts have figured out various ways to get that capability back, and Sony is so thrilled about that, they’re suing.

Sony is in the wrong.
I’m of the school of thought that if you buy something, you’ve bought the right to use it as you see fit.

For example, this weekend I bought a leaf blower. I brought it home, took some measurements, then went back to the hardware store and bought some PVC pipe and fittings to turn the leaf blower into a gutter cleaner. I’m sure the manufacturer of the leaf blower doesn’t want it used that way because an acorn could fly out of the gutter and hit me in the head.

I choose to do it, regardless of what the manufacturer thinks, because I’d rather put on a bike helmet and a pair of safety glasses and blow out my gutters from the comfort of the ground than climb up a ladder and run around on the roof. It’s much easier to protect myself from high-speed acorns than from 12-foot falls.

I also occasionally buy computers. I’d rather build them, but if the right deal presents itself, I’ll buy one. I rarely use it as-is. I’ll replace components with more capable versions. I may even disassemble the thing entirely and use the parts to make something else.

So why can I modify my leaf blower or my computer, but not a video game system?

Revenue protection, that’s why.

When I was a kid, the technological marvel was the Atari 2600. My friends and I spent hours playing simple games after school on that machine. But in 1983, interest in it fell out of the sky. Part of the reason for it was that the market got flooded with $30 games that weren’t any fun. Atari released a couple of clunkers itself, but there were countless fly-by-night companies that released titles of questionable quality. Atari didn’t make any money off the third-party software, and its uneven quality made the general public nervous. They stopped buying the console and the software, at least in the United States.

A couple of years later, Nintendo decided to try again. They made a system, and they put a lockout chip in it. Third parties could make software, but they had to buy a chip to put in thier cartridges. And if the software didn’t meet certain quality standards, they reserved the right to not sell them chips.

The system was a runaway success. The lockout chip kept the worst of the dreck off the market and provided a long-term revenue stream that lasted well into the 1990s. Several companies eventually succeeded at reverse-engineering the chip, but by the time that happened, the system was on its way out anyway.

All future systems copied this. It didn’t take long for everyone to figure out that software is more profitable than hardware.

Sony claims that running Linux on PS3s makes it easier to pirate games. It’s difficult to see how that’s possible, but running Linux on a PS3 certainly does make it possible to run software on it that Sony doesn’t make any money from.

The technology field seems to be unique in this. Printer manufacturers go to great lengths to make sure nobody else can make ink cartridges that fit their printers, and that we can’t refill them. But makers of everything else seem to have figured out how to make enough to survive by selling us something once, and letting us do pretty much what we want with it.

And there’s another dark side to this manufacturer control over what we can do with something after we buy it.

After kids my age got bored with Atari, a lot of us ended up getting computers. They were unsophisticated by today’s standards, but the simplicity also meant we could understand them and tinker with them. Some of us did, and what we learned by understanding them led to other things. Some of us became system administrators like I did, but some became the developers and engineers who create the technological marvels that we take for granted today.

I have two sons. The oldest will be 3 in a few weeks. He knows that I know how to make some simple toys, and earlier this week he asked me to teach him how to make wooden trains. I don’t know if this means he likes making stuff, or if he likes trains.

But if my sons grow up in a world where huge megacorporations sell them black boxes and dictate to them what they can do with them, that’s not going to be a very interesting world. If that generation is prohibited by EULA, or law, from taking things apart, learning how they work, and repurposing things, then how are they ever going to learn how to make anything worth having? More importantly, how will anyone else’s kids? I have the knowledge to bust through prevention schemes if they block my kids’ ambitions. Many parents don’t.

Forget the EULAs. If they’re not hurting anyone–and by anyone, I mean a real, tangible, living, breathing person, not some corporate legal entity–by taking apart a black box and making something else out of the pieces, then it isn’t wrong. Period.

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8 thoughts on “Just say no to black boxes

  • January 16, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Hmmm. Interesting thoughts.

  • January 16, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    The real crime here is that Sony was able to remove a feature that was enabled on the PS3 when we purchased them. While we all know that the work done on the PS3 over the past few weeks will most likely lead to games being pirated, really all these guys were trying to do was RE-enable the features that Sony DISabled. It’s really hard for me to see these hackers as the bad guys in this story. It’s as if the owner of your leaf blower snuck into your garage in the middle of the house and modified it not to work until you removed your gutter cleaner … especially if the leaf blower box said, “can be used as a gutter cleaner.”

  • January 16, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Or like Honda recalling all Civics to fix a problem with the headlight, and when the owners take the cars in, taking out the CD player because they *might* use the CD player to play pirated music.

    If Honda did that, it would be criminal, literally. But when Sony does it, that’s perfectly OK.

  • January 16, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    The central point of this post is Sony suing somebody over something which revolves around modification of Sony hardware? I’m sure the devil is in the details, but what are they?

    • January 16, 2011 at 11:55 pm

      Rob probably knows more details than me, since I care only about the principle of the thing. I don’t own a PS3 and I don’t plan to get one any time soon. The main thing, as far as I can tell, is that someone reverse-engineered the signature key required to sign and authorize software. From there, someone else was able to figure out how to “root” the console, which is exactly the same concept as rooting a smartphone.

      So, now that that information is loose, there are at least two ways to get non-sanctioned software to run on a PS3. And since this has happened, not only Linux is running on the PS3 again, but someone got FreeBSD running on the PS3 too. So there’s no hardware modification involved.

      I think the reason Sony is screaming “piracy!” is so they can invoke the DMCA. Hopefully they’ll get a judge who understands enough that he or she can see being able to run Linux and FreeBSD as useful features (the U.S. government builds supercomputer clusters out of PS3s running Linux, for what that’s worth) and sees piracy as either the side-effect or non sequitur that it is.

  • January 18, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    Brilliant post. Hit me in the gut, the heart, and the head. Triple whammy. Love it.

    I have a few young kids too and I know how you feel. But I have to add, it won’t be a dark day for the future of mankind if everything becomes a black box sealed forever, because the mankind in question is only one in the political boundaries in which we live. Places where intellectual property doesn’t mean a whole lot and where megacorps and the laws supporting them don’t really exist — well those places are going to be the home of our future Makers.

    It all goes full circle then maybe things change.

  • January 27, 2011 at 6:13 am

    Quote :
    The technology field seems to be unique in this.

    Not really. Many tech products are sold at throwaway prices or below cost, because the manufacturer expects to recover costs through the continuing stream of revenue in future. But you do find similar offers – Gillette with the razors at dirt cheap prices and refill blades at extortionate prices; Standard Oil’s giveaway of kerosene lamps; magazine offers where the first year is at a fraction of the normal subscription, and so on.

    IANAL, so can’t comment about the legality of this; but simplest solution; if you don’t like it, don’t buy.

    • January 27, 2011 at 8:46 pm

      Ah, but there’s a big difference between video game consoles or printers and the older giveaways like Gillette razors, Standard Oil’s kerosene lamps, and magazine subscriptions. Once I have them in my possession, they don’t control what I do with them. Gillette doesn’t invoke the DMCA on me if I refill it with knockoff blades (or attempt to), or if I use the metal or plastic in the handle to make toy train parts. Standard Oil didn’t invoke the DMCA if someone managed to get kerosene from someone other than Standard Oil. Magazine publishers don’t dictate to me by EULA how many times I can read the articles, nor do they restrict me from letting my wife read it. They manage to make profits without using legal sledgehammers to bludgeon us into submission.

      I don’t like it. So I don’t own a PS3. I use an old HP Laserjet 4100 printer that doesn’t have any restrictions on its cartridges. But will it always be possible to avoid the issue? Maybe, maybe not. And I don’t agree with the common idea today that if something is legal, then it’s right. Used-car salesmen do a lot of things that are shady, but legal. Politicians lie more than they tell the truth, but as long as they’re careful about what they lie about, it’s perfectly legal. That doesn’t make it right. And we have to stand up for our rights, while individuals still have a shred of them left.

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