Recent class discussion has touched upon the fact that when we spend money on digital goods, be it hardware or software, we aren’t really “buying” it. The money that we give is at best a lease payment. We don’t have any assurance of permanence to the software, and we don’t have the right to tinker with the hardware. This harkens back to Amazon’s retraction of 1984, or Blizzard’s pursuit of Michael Donnelly for his bot Glider in World of Warcraft. Can you imagine if someone came into your home and repossessed your kitchen table because you had altered the length of the legs, and besides, they were just letting you use it for a time? Why shouldn’t we be allowed to take what we paid good money for and tinker with it in any way that we choose?
So how are corporations calling the users on this, and how are the users fighting back?
Let’s look at Sony, one of the biggest opponents to tinkering. Sony has a long history of going after people or organizations that take their products and attempt to expand or improve upon them, even if the purpose behind the alterations is for personal use only. One case is that of aibopet.com, a website that provided updates and hacks to owners of Sony’s AIBO (Artificial Intelligence robot). The main purpose of this website was to allow users to share new and unique hacks that would allow an owner to teach their pet how to dance or perform other tricks not originally written into the programming. The hackers were making no money off their innovations, and if anything, this was only encouraging more people to buy an AIBO and allowing the current fans of the AIBO to become more fanatical. Sony didn’t see it that way, however, and in 2001 used the DMCA to force the site down (it’s now available under aibohack.com, maybe a slightly more appropriate moniker). While it seems understandable that Sony would be concerned about the loss of revenue on future authentic software or hardware updates, it seems like a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, so to speak. Wouldn’t fun upgrades that don’t undermine Sony’s original programming only generate good press for the original product?
A more recent case involving Sony’s hatred for innovation not instigated within its walls involves a young hacker by the name of George Hotz, AKA geohot. Hotz had previously gained some notoriety in the hacking world for being the first to jailbreak the iPhone. With regards to Sony, during the tail end of 2009 Hotz figured out a way to restore some functionality to the Playstation 3 that Sony had taken away, such as the PS2 emulator. The PS3 was supposed to be the only fully secure and unhackable system among the seventh generation of gaming consoles (including Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii), so it’s easy to see why Sony would get riled up when Hotz proved them wrong (of course, this past spring’s highly publicized security breach certainly didn’t help their image either).
Either way, Sony took Hotz to court in January of last year over violation of the DMCA, computer fraud, and copyright infringement. The court also issued Sony access to the IP addresses of everyone who had visited Hotz’s blog. No charges were filed against anyone who downloaded the hacks, but it seems obvious that Sony wanted the appearance of control over those who might download the hacks.
Sony and Hotz settled out of court in the end, but not before Hotz posted this rap on his blog and YouTube about the lawsuit (NSFW, but pretty funny).
As the system stands now, corporations have the right to examine what the consumer wants and charge them for it. For instance, last summer Verizon sold HTC Thunderbolts that could be used as WiFi hotspots, only to later take that function away and offer it for an additional $20 fee. Verizon got a chance to realize that this was a service that people wanted, sell a bunch of phones, and then make the users pay extra for the ability that they purchased the phone for in the first place. What’s to stop Sony from taking any of the innovations that those at aibopets.com or George Hotz came up with, integrating them into their own products, and charging more for them?
I feel that users are stuck between a rock and a hard place. As Jonathan Zittrain says in “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It”, users can make the decision to stick with the protection and reliability the original product provides, or choose to make the product suit his or her needs better and be left out in the cold by the original creator, or in frequent cases prosecuted by the corporations.
So what is to be done? Nothing, for the time being, except for staying vigilant and making good decisions about the corporations we support, as the blog Freedom to Tinker strives to do. It comes down to consumers making the decisions about what is more important: the product as it was originally conceived by its creator and the encouragement of innovation and technological expansion as realized by professionals, hobbyists, and “tinkerers” across the internet. Until the boycotting of these companies’ products makes enough impact on sales for them to take notice, what incentive do they have to allow individuals to implement ideas that the corporations themselves could use to create more profit?