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

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.

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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.

XboxFirst, 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 laptopBut 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. 

Topic: Operating Systems

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  • You need to be better informed

    Wow, some real doozies in your article.

    ---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)---

    Forget unethical, your second example is illegal, and not fair use at all. Copyright provides the holder exclusive rights of distribution. Making copies and reselling them is not, in any way, fair use and is in fact copyright infringement. Making 10 copies and giving them to friends might be a better example for your argument.

    ---First, is it ethical to hack an Xbox or any other bit of commercial hardware?---

    Abso-freaking-lutely. You purchase it, you own it, it's yours to do whatever you want with it. Why should a consumer be concerned with supporting the ill-thought out business model of Microsoft (or any other company). Is it wrong for me to repeatedly buy razor blade handles on sale that come with one or two blades because it's cheaper than buying just the blades to use with my current handle? Shouldn't I be doing what's best for my own interests, rather than making a charitable donation to Gillette?

    ---What about the $100 laptop being developed by MIT Media Lab for the developing world? ---

    As I understand it, the only way to purchase one of these is to pay $300 for it. You buy it, and it pays for 2 computers to be donated to the developing world. It's still a great bargain, and they seem to have put together a business model that doesn't rely on the gullibility you want to enforce in consumers.
    tic swayback
    • My examples was ...

      ... that there are some that claim that making 10 copies of a CD and selling them to friends at a buck a time is still fair use.
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
      • Like Tic said...

        ...that particular example is a blatant violation of copyright and should be punished. It doesn't follow, however, that MS has the right to dictate to it's customers what can be done with the X-boxes they're sold.
        John L. Ries
        • No logical thought process

          I have never used an Xbox or Linux so I don't have an axe to grind. But Adrian sounds just like the card carrying tree huggers and animal lovers from the 60's and 70's. What gives him away is the fact that he can't produce a logical thought process. Nothing in his presentation shows logical thinking. Sorry Adrian, you blew your cover.
          leojohns@...
          • Abandon all logic, ye who enter here.

            >>Both have a specific market that's designed not to compete with sales of existing PC hardware<<

            Now, that is a marketing decision, isn't it, not one that has to do with any moral, legal, or ethical matters.

            The original article reads like the author has been sitting around for too long, gazing across lush green lawns, wearing Birkenstock's, chinos, and sipping green tea, while thinking deep thoughts and expressing his concerns for the little brown peoples of the world.

            A hundred dollar pc? Horrors! Dear God, the market could collapse! Does the author recall the original IBM PC, or a chip known as the Zilog Z80? You might think stone age technology, but current production Zilog Z80 chips are about a buck and are running at speeds to 15 Mhz. Another five bucks should get you enough ROM to embed a LINUX shell, and something as functional as the original ?Appleworks? suite of programs.
            Add a keyboard and monitor, send the design to China, order fifty thousand, wait three months, receive shipping containers full of devices that you can sell to in the First World for $150.00 and for every one sold you can GIVE AWAY one in the third world and still make money.

            Why would they sell in the first world? Because, every LINUX geek on the planet has parents, and friends who have parents, and coworkers, and yes, a few even have girlfriends.
            And if you offer a system that can write a letter, balance a checkbook, connect to the net and send email.... A system that can't be hacked, can't be ?tuned-up? when cousin Harvey comes to visit, or reformatted when a cat walks across the keyboard.....

            Hardware Geeks will be buying cases of them in self defense, and giving them to everybody they know for Christmas, birthdays, Fathers Day, Mothers Day, and maybe even proclaim a national ?Freedom from having to yet again help somebody recover from a Windows Disaster Day.?

            If you want to see a national productivity leap, imagine what can be done with all the hours spent not reinstalling and troubleshooting somebodies two thousand dollar computer to a workable state.
            Program glitch? Remove your flash drive, push reset button, insert flash drive, done.

            The industry need not fear the hundred dollar computer. They should be in a state of violent colic, knowing that all it takes is one big lottery winner with a spare million, that has seen their Wintel machine crash one too many times. A spare million or two, and motivation, and let's see the advertising campaign trying to convince people not to buy one of those fifty dollar PC gadgets for grandma.
            spmtrapr@...
        • Oooo, Big Bad Microsoft

          " It doesn't follow, however, that MS has the right to dictate to it's customers what can be done with the X-boxes they're sold.

          Of course, dictating the rules should apply only to Apple, its iPod/iTunes in particular. Please.
          rushnrockt
          • Nope

            If someone wants to hack an IPod they own, I think they have a legal and moral right to do so. If property rights mean anything at all, then people have the right to modify physical objects they own as they see fit and the vendor has no right to impose restrictions thereon. The law may have something to say about how such items are used, but the seller has none at all (I'm no fan of protective covenants either, but real estate is a different animal).

            Doesn't really matter who the vendor is.
            John L. Ries
          • Is it wrong for me to use the handle of my

            screwdriver to drive a nail? Or make a wallet out of duct tape? What about using a Dell or Gateway as a doorstop?
            swoopee
          • Perfect example

            That's a perfect example.

            I'll do whatever I want with technology I own, just as everyone throughout history who has ever invented anything has done.

            I've blogged about this story at Architectures of Control in Design (http://architectures.danlockton.co.uk/?p=80 )

            Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, in ZDNet?s Hardware 2.0 blog, asks whether it is ?ethical? for users to install GNU/Linux on an Xbox, or in general, to use hardware they have bought in whatever way they wish.

            ?First, is it ethical to hack an Xbox or any other bit of commercial hardware? I?m not just talking about Microsoft hardware here? 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.?

            Other people?s failed business models should not be the concern of customers. If they?re buying the hardware, it?s up to them to do what they want with it. If customers want to do something with the hardware that the manufacturer has not anticipated, why not work with them?

            ?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.?

            This is especially na?ve. It?s free as in speech, not necessarily free as in beer.

            He then goes on to talk about how he ?fears? that Nicholas Negroponte?s $100 Laptop may become popular in the west where it ?is going to be attractive to a whole host of hackers and modders and could be used as the basis for countless projects.?

            How is this bad? The more widely the system is adopted, and the more user knowedge and expertise that is generated and disseminated, the greater the network benefits for all involved, from kids in Cambodian vilages to kids in Cambridge, MA.

            Indeed, a truly global, low-priced hardware system with a huge user base and huge knowledge base, modifying, improving and repurposing the hardware, including millions of users in developing countries right from the start, is surely something extremely desirable: truly the democracy of innovation.

            The comments on the post contain some great analogies to help set the record straight.
            DanLockton
      • Ignorance of the law is no excuse

        ---that there are some that claim that making 10 copies of a CD
        and selling them to friends at a buck a time is still fair use.---

        I can claim that stabbing an unarmed stranger in the face 150
        times is "self-defense", but that doesn't make it any more legal.
        tic swayback
        • Ignorance of ethics is the issue

          An ethical problem is the one touted by some infamous enterprise CEOs as a defense foe seriously unethical practices - "It is not illegal, we were breaking no laws".
          The point about the fore-going discussion is that copying 10 CDS and GIVINg them to your friends is NOT fair use euther. The fact that unethical individuals can decide it is not illegal and so it is OK is the problem.
          The downside of unethical practices? The ethical user pays the extra costs (including nastier forms of DRM).
          Bob G Beechey
          • Isn't it?

            ---The point about the fore-going discussion is that copying 10 CDS and GIVINg them to your friends is NOT fair use euther.---

            Not sure you can draw a clear line like this. If I throw a party and make a special mixed cd for my 10 guests that I give to them, is that fair use? You'd probably have to get a court to decide. I know I can make one mixed cd and give it to a friend. I know I can't put my mixed cd up on a p2p site and distribute it to the world. But where does the line between those two things get drawn? How many copies is too many?

            ---The fact that unethical individuals can decide it is not illegal and so it is OK is the problem.---

            Luckily in this case, modding your Xbox to run Linux is both legal and ethical.

            ---The downside of unethical practices? The ethical user pays the extra costs (including nastier forms of DRM).---

            I think you're blaming the victim. Every company that wants to use DRM as an avenue for generating profits is going to put the maximum amount of DRM in their product that the buying public will accept, regardless of what unethical people are doing. Even if there were no filesharing, RIAA companies would still be looking to use DRM as a means of getting us to pay extra. Ditto the price argument--any company is going to charge the absolute maximum that the market will bear, regardless of consumer behavior.
            tic swayback
    • What's to stop them ...

      filtering back?

      "As I understand it, the only way to purchase one of these is to pay $300 for it. You buy it, and it pays for 2 computers to be donated to the developing world."
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
      • Nothing, as it should be

        Hopefully, they'll distribute the computers to people who really
        need them. If someone decides they need a few $ more than
        they need a computer, who are we to argue with a starving
        person in a developing country?

        And by the time you factor in shipping and such, getting a beat
        up used computer for $100 versus a new one for $300 isn't that
        much of a steal, so I can't see a real high demand.

        Regardless, any business model is subject to the whims of the
        market. Once you sell (or give away) your product, you no
        longer own it, and no longer control it. You have to live with the
        consequences of selling it.
        tic swayback
      • it's bad for your fiscal health, ya know...

        ...spending time with you know who....
        he's rubbing off on you - causing you to slip
        yogeee
    • Xbox and Gillette????

      "Is it wrong for me to repeatedly buy razor blade handles on sale that come with one or two blades because it's cheaper than buying just the blades to use with my current handle? Shouldn't I be doing what's best for my own interests, rather than making a charitable donation to Gillette?"

      I keep seeing Xbox compared to Gillette ... I don't get it.
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
      • Razor business model

        Their business models are identical. Gillette essentially gives away
        the handles, and makes their profit by selling you replacement
        blades which are very expensive. MS essentially gives away the
        Xbox and makes its profits from selling you expensive games. The
        same goes for inkjet printers. Sell the printer at break-even/a
        slight loss, profit heavily from ink cartridge sales.
        tic swayback
      • Maybe a better scenario.......

        I buy a car from a major manufacturer. I can paint it any way I like, change the rims and tires, modify the performance, improve the sound system, etc..... How can Microsoft prevent me from changing an XBox if I want to? There is no difference here. I buy it, I own it.
        linux_for_me
        • I was wondering..

          why it took so long to make this comprison.

          Pinto plus 5.0 makes for better car. Maybe not wise but who is to say you cant do it.

          Or...Buy a Kia Spectra and add a bunch of stuff to it. Inexpensive base, powerful results, not for everybody though. And no one is buying bunches of Kias to resale under a new name with better inside and outside packages. Mostly for sport.

          Take a lesson from Scion, promote the heck out of tricking up your ride, even if it an XBox.
          cchrsitian
          • Shelby

            Actually, Shelby did this in the late 60s and 70s. He bought Ford Mustangs, modified them to increase the performance, and sold them as Shelby Cobra Mustangs. Later, Ford hired him on as a consultant to help them do these mods at the factory.
            fromthehip