March 31, 2004

“Bray”ing from the Boston Globe [7:43 am]

Although he seems to be trying to be even handed, it’s clear where Hiawatha Bray stands on technological alienation and the DMCA (for those who were there, recall the discussion of transparency at Alan’s talk yesterday): Software pirates chip away at gaming industry revenue [pdf]

Like other DVD players, the game consoles contain chips that restrict their functions. American PlayStations and Xboxes won’t show foreign-made DVD movie discs or play overseas-produced games. Want to play a cool game you saw in Tokyo? You must buy a Japanese version of the console to play it. And another thing — if you use a DVD burner to make a copy of a game, the copy won’t work.

[...] A mod chip is a piece of silicon that seizes control from a similar chip built into the game consoles. The standard chip contains software that sets all those annoying limits on the machine’s performance. But solder in a mod chip and install some software available for free on the Internet, and those restrictions disappear. Suddenly your PlayStation or Xbox can play any game produced anywhere in the world. You can use Internet file-swapping software to download dozens of games without paying a penny, or you can rent games at the local Blockbuster, make copies, and add them to your permanent collection.

“The modding of the XBox itself should certainly be legal; why shouldn’t I have permission to modify a piece of hardware I’ve paid for?” said Mark, a 33-year-old researcher in Iowa City who spoke on the condition that his last name not be printed.

Strictly speaking, he’s right. Modding a game console voids the warranty, but it’s no more a crime than flinging it against a wall. It’s your machine; do what you please.

Even game companies admit this. A Microsoft spokesman said that the company tracks the vendors of mod chips and takes legal action against them on a case-by-case basis. For instance, a company that simply sells blank chips that can be used to modify a console is doing nothing illegal. But if they sell the software that circumvents the game machine’s limitations, that’s a violation of a 1998 federal copyright law. Just ask David Rocci, a Virginia man who was sentenced to five months in prison last year for selling Xbox mod chips with illegal software included.

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