Fair use, Xbox hacking, and how far will Linux users go to get a cheap PC?

Summary:You hear a lot about "rights" when discussing any topic associated with copyright or fair use. Each side sees a whole series of rights that they need to defend from being eroded by the rights of the other side. The thing with fair use is that there's a huge gray area between legitimate fair use (say, copying a CD for use in a car) and taking advantage (say, making 10 copies of a CD and selling them to friends at a buck a time). But how does fair use apply to hacking hardware? Is this an innocent past time or an activity that can cost us all more in the way of time and increased DRM restrictions.

You hear a lot about "rights" when discussing any topic associated with copyright or fair use.  Each side sees a whole series of rights that they need to defend from being eroded by the rights of the other side.  The thing with fair use is that there's a huge gray area between legitimate fair use (say, copying a CD for use in a car) and taking advantage (say, making 10 copies of a CD and selling them to friends at a buck a time). 

Yesterday I came across a number of blog posts (two that I remember are Freedom to Tinker and Schneier.com) linking to an old article on Xbox Linux Project called "17 Mistakes Microsoft Made in the Xbox Security System".  The article is a fascinating look at Is it ethical to hack an Xbox or any other bit of commercial hardware?how the Xbox security systems were examined and reverse-engineered so that an Xbox could be used as a PC to run Linux rather than a games console.  At $149 bucks, the Xbox represented a very cheap piece of hardware to run a free operating system on.  Problem with that is, from Microsoft's perspective at least, they want to make their money off the games, and if people are buying an Xbox and turning it from a games console into mini-PC, that game revenue is lost.

Reading the article it becomes clear that the biggest security mistake Microsoft made with the Xbox was that they couldn't think of the Xbox as anything other than a small PC and they built it using a lot of standard PC parts (to keep the price down).  However, I want to get away from looking at the specifics of securing the Xbox and look at a couple of wider issues.

Xbox
First, is it ethical to hack an Xbox or any other bit of commercial hardware?   I'm not just talking about Microsoft hardware here, where the public perception is that it has enough money and could give away a gazillion Xboxes and still make a healthy profit at the end of the year.  I'm thinking about the smaller fish that might have a good idea, but can't make it viable to get it out of the door because their business model could be undermined by people circumventing any security they put in place.  What the Xbox has demonstrated is that there is a huge demand for cheap computers to run Linux on, and if all it takes is a bit of reverse-engineering to make that computer available, then so be it.  A free operating system is worthless without hardware to put on it, and of course one of the key features of Linux is that it's free.  Put a free operating system into the ecosystem and it's only a matter of time before users start looking for free (or nearly free) hardware to run it on.  Problem is, it's much easier to make a virtual product that's free than it is to come up with free hardware.

While we're on the subject of free operating systems (or free anything for that matter), it's important to bear in mind that someone, somewhere, has paid for it, maybe not with money, but with their time or effort.  There's no such thing as a totally free lunch - someone, somewhere, always picks up the tab. 

But, while I'm a firm believer in fair use, I'm not convinced that hacking an Xbox so that Linux can be run on it is all that ethical.  Why?  Because while buying an Xbox and modding it to run Linux might well be sticking it to ‘the man’ (in this case Microsoft), it is also potentially sticking it to future customers out there who might end up having to pay a higher price for the product or live with ever-increasing DRM restrictions.  Individually, people hacking an Xbox don't make much of an impact, but collectively (through the power of the Internet), their reach, and therefore their overall effect, is huge.

OK, let's now take this a step further.  So far I've talked exclusively about the Xbox as a platform for Linux. Apart from the game manufacturers, who are gambling that their investment in a platform is going to pay off, the only affected parties here are Microsoft, and people who have the disposable income to buy a games console in the first place, so it's not hard to come up with convincing arguments as to why this is both moral and ethical. 

$100 laptop
But how far can this line of thinking be pushed?  What about the $100 laptop being developed by MIT Media Lab for the developing world?  What about sticking it to children in the developing world?  How long before hackers are obtaining these units and modding them to have more storage to satisfy the needs of Linux users?  After all, these units seem pretty powerful:

"What can a $1000 laptop do that the $100 version can't?
Not much. The plan is for the $100 Laptop to do almost everything. What it will not do is store a massive amount of data."

Laptop.org FAQ

The leap from hacking an Xbox in order to get a cheap PC for Linux and using these ready-made systems isn't all that huge.  There's not a huge difference between using the Xbox and using the $100 laptop:

  • Both sell (or will sell) at an artificially reduced price
  • Both have a specific market that's designed not to compete with sales of existing PC hardware

It's more than likely that some of these machines find their way into the hands of enthusiasts who will mod them to suit their needs.  But how will people who are comfortable with the idea of an Xbox being hacked feel about this?  I don't think that they would be anywhere near as happy with this, from an ethical standpoint.  A $100 laptop, no matter how "cut down" it is, is going to be attractive to a whole host of hackers and modders and could be used as the basis for countless projects.  And at $100, it's close to being chump change for those involved in these kinds of projects. 

My fear is that a substantial a number of laptops will be diverted from their intended destinations and will end up back in the West, where both the cash and the incentive to own them exists.  And the worst part is that I don't think that the objections would be all that great either, since the desire to own something at the expense of others has, to some degree at least, eroded the sense of what's right and wrong, skewing it so that some are only capable of seeing what they want or need rather than what might be right. 

Topics: Operating Systems

About

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is an internationally published technology author who has devoted over a decade to helping users get the most from technology -- whether that be by learning to program, building a PC from a pile of parts, or helping them get the most from their new MP3 player or digital camera.Adrian has authored/co-authored technic... Full Bio

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