More Innovative Reverse Engineering

by on June 21, 2006

Ed Felten is back from vacation and has a great new post on the XBox Linux project:

Microsoft had two reasons for locking down the hardware. It wanted to stop people from running Xbox games that had been illegally copied. And it wanted to stop people from running other (noninfringing) software such as Linux. The latter goal is the more interesting one. Microsoft did this because it wanted to sell the Xbox hardware at a loss, and make up the difference by charging a premium for games. To do this, it needed to stop unauthorized software–otherwise people might buy the Xbox, install another operating system on it, and never buy an Xbox game.

A group of clever engineers, calling themselves the Xbox Linux Project, set out to discover how Microsoft had tried to lock down the Xbox hardware, and how they could overcome Microsoft’s lockdown and install Linux. We would expect them to succeed–in computer security, physical control of a device almost always can be leveraged to control the device’s behavior–and indeed they did.

Felten points out that whatever we think of this sort of behavior from a public policy standpoint, this is clearly not a copyright issue, as such. There are many industries (such as razor blades, print cartridges, and photocopiers) in which companies sell one product at low cost to stimulate sales of related products. One can make a pretty good argument that companies should have legal tools at their disposal to make such arrangements stick, but it’s hard to see why copyright is the right tool for the job, or why Microsoft should have more powerful tools at its disposal than, say, Gillette.

This also dovetails nicely with my previous post on reverse engineering and innovation. You might not consider the act of hacking the XBox to be innovative in itself, but it’s easy to imagine all sorts of innovative things one could do with a hacked XBox. Take the XBox Media Center, for example:

Currently XboxMediaCenter can be used to play/view most common video/audio/picture formats such as MPEG-1/2/4, DivX, XviD, MP3, AAC, JPG, GIF plus many more less known formats directly from a CD/DVD in Xbox DVD-ROM drive or of Xbox hard-drive, XBMC can also stream files from a PC over a local network and even stream media streams directly from the internet. XBMC has playlist and slideshow functions, a weather forecast and many audio visualizations.

Check out the list of features on that page. It goes on for pages. You’d be hard-pressed to find a commercial home media device that has anywhere close to that much functionality for anywhere near $150. Yet because it interferes with Microsoft’s pricing strategy, they’ve done their best to kill it. The loss of this kind of innovation ought to at least appear on the ledger when we’re evaluating policies that give companies de facto property rights in their technological platforms.

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