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SONY's War On Makers, Hackers And Innovators

Two weeks ago I proclaimed a winner in the microcontroller dev board arena with “Why the Arduino Won, and Why It’s Here to Stay.” There’s still lots of great debate going on, and conversations that still haven’t ended. Is my prediction right? We’ll see what happens in the upcoming months and years.

This week I’m going to switch gears a little and declare an enemy for all makers, hackers, and innovators — it’s in a very different space: the consumer electronics industry. And who is this slayer of progress? Sony.

If you’re over the age of 25 you likely have a long history with Sony. They were the company we all had something from. If you only had $20, Sony had the best $20 headphones. If you have $500, again, Sony usually had the best. From their world-changing Walkman to a Sony Trinitron monitor, Sony has been part of our lives in one way or another for decades.

In this article, we’ll explore Sony’s long history of going after legitimate innovation, hobbyists, and competition. Sony, we’ve been keeping score. We’re tired of you picking on people who want to program their robot dogs to dance. We’re tired of you suing people who want to run their own software on something they bought. Sony has made so many mistakes with technology choices (Memory Stick, Magic Gate, UMD!), perhaps they’ll end themselves soon enough, but we’d like to think there’s at least someone there would wants to avoid Sony spending its last days sending DMCAs to anyone who tweets “46DCEAD317FE45D80923EB97E4956410D4CDB2C2″.

I couldn’t find one location that documented Sony’s all-out war on makers, hackers, and innovators, so I started my own (and it isn’t pretty). The talented artists, designers, and engineers who work at Sony deserve better, and their customers deserve better. Don’t worry, I’m not just going to spank Sony. I’m going to give Sony some ideas to right this ship and also let them know it’s time to reconsider suing George “geohot” Hotz, the Playstation 3 hacker Sony is dragging to court for unlocking his PS3 to run his own software on it.

There are likely a few other examples, but I’ve boiled it down to a top 7 list — these are in mostly chronological order. We’ll explore each one and why it’s been bad for makers as well as Sony.

  • Sony DMCA delayed disclosure of Sony BMG rootkit vulnerability
  • Sony threatens Aibo hobbyists for creating software that enables Sony’s Aibo robot dog to dance
  • Sony sues Connectix and Bleem to block software that allows gamers to play their PlayStation games on PCs
  • Sony attacks PlayStation “Mod Chips” and enforces a system of “region coding”
  • Sony sued Gamemasters, distributor of the Game Enhancer peripheral device, which allowed owners of a U.S. PlayStation console to play games purchased in Japan and other countries
  • Sony removes OtherOS option, removes Linux support
  • Sony is suing makers, hackers, and tinkers for jailbreaking of the PS3 to play homebrew games


Sony DMCA delayed disclosure of Sony BMG rootkit vulnerability

The problem seems to have started when Sony became a content company. They bought music and movie companies, and stopped caring about what they were good at: making awesome, tiny electronics that people love.

J. Alex Halderman, a graduate student at Princeton University, discovered the existence of several security vulnerabilities in the CD copy-protection software on dozens of Sony-BMG titles. He delayed publishing his discovery for several weeks while consulting with lawyers in order to avoid DMCA pitfalls. This left millions of music fans at risk longer than necessary. The security flaws inherent in Sony-BMG’s “rootkit” copy-protection software were subsequently publicized by another researcher who was apparently unaware of the legal risks created by the DMCA. Security researchers had sought a DMCA exemption in 2003 in order to facilitate research on dangerous DRM systems like the Sony-BMG rootkit, but their request was denied by the U.S. Copyright Office.

Source: EFF. This was classic — people who actually bought a CD back in 2005 were treated to “Extended Copy Protection (XCP) and MediaMax CD-3 software” on their music CDs. This was malware, and if you used it your computer was hosed. Sony later recalled the CDs, was class-action sued, and even homeland security and the DOJ got involved. But that’s not all…

Additionally, further investigation revealed that Sony had created its copyright protection software, in part, using LAME code written by Jon Lech Johansen, violating the GNU Lesser General Public License.

Source: Wikipedia. To recap: Sony delays disclosing the vulnerability and then it turns out they also violated the GPL. Harmful to researchers, harmful to people who do OSS and harmful to Sony’s customers. It was estimated that over 500,000 computers/networks were infected with this Sony malware. At least Sony didn’t kick puppies. Oh wait, that’s the next one…


Sony threatens Aibo hobbyist for creating software that enables Sony’s Aibo robot dog to dance

Another classic Sony war-on-makers. Here’s one from 2005, again…

…the Aibo robotic pet has gained popularity not only in people’s homes but also in the eyes of DMCA-case watchers. Perhaps Sony’s engineers couldn’t keep up with owners’ demands that their robotic dogs do more than bark, sit, and fetch pink-colored objects. In walked the hacker known only as AiboPet, who cracked the encrypted Aibo code and created programs that taught the dogs to dance and speak, and enabled owners to view the world through their pets eyes. “If it had not been for AiboPet’s information, his invaluable knowledge and his generosity in sharing it with the Aibo community, I would not have purchased an Aibo,” one Aibo owner said. Sony sued AiboPet for violating the DMCA. Aibo-lovers boycotted Sony. Sony conceded to its customers, apologized to AiboPet by rescinding the lawsuit, and the AiboPet-hacked code is back, available for downloading.

Source: GrepLaw. The EFF also has a good overview of this incident:

Sony has also invoked the DMCA against a hobbyist who developed custom “dance moves” for his Aibo robotic “pet” dog. Developing these new routines for the Sony Aibo required reverse engineering the encryption surrounding the software that manipulates the robot. The hobbyist revealed neither the decrypted Sony software nor the code he used to defeat the encryption, but he freely distributed his new custom programs. Sony claimed that the act of circumventing the encryption surrounding the software in the Aibo violated the DMCA and demanded that the hobbyist remove his programs from his website. Responding to public outcry, Sony ultimately permitted the hobbyist to repost some of his programs (on the understanding that Sony retained the right to commercially exploit the hobbyist’s work). The incident illustrated Sony’s willingness to invoke the DMCA in situations with no relationship to “piracy.”

That was about six years ago, and what has happened since? Sony discontinued the Aibo. No one is using their platform, millions of dollars are wasted, and the IP is locked up, unused. Talented roboticists steered clear of Sony, and customers eventually moved on too. One of the best robots in the world to get kids interested in robotics is completely ruined by the company that created it. Pictured above, me with my Aibo running my custom Aibo programs — telepresence through a robot dog!


Sony sues Connectix and Bleem to block software that allows gamers to play their PlayStation games on PCs

Let’s say you want to start a company that emulates old consoles to play old videos — sounds like a cool company — or maybe you just have a ton of old games and want to play them on your PC. In Sony’s world, this isn’t permitted and (you guessed it) you get sued. In the maker world, it’s completely normal to build your own arcade enclosure or retro-looking system and use a PC to power. We jam PCs into old Ataris, or whatever else we can get our hands on. But when a company made it possible to play old PlayStation games, they got shut down.


Image: Theging.com

Another roundup from the EFF:

Sony has used DMCA to sue competitors who created emulation software that permits gamers to play PlayStation console games on PCs. In 1999, Sony sued Connectix, the maker of the Virtual Game Station, a PlayStation emulator for Macintosh computers. Sony also sued Bleem, the leading vendor of PlayStation emulator software for Windows PCs.

Neither Connectix nor Bleem were able to bear the high costs of litigation against Sony and pulled their products off the market. No similar emulation products have been introduced, effectively forcing gamers to use Sony console hardware if they want to play the PlayStation games they have purchased.

We don’t think Sony would win this one then or now, and in July 2010 the DMCA added some new exemptions. Not exactly a get-out-of-Sony-suit-free card, but at least it’s being considered…

(4) Video games accessible on personal computers and protected by technological protection measures that control access to lawfully obtained works, when circumvention is accomplished solely for the purpose of good faith testing for, investigating, or correcting security flaws or vulnerabilities, if:
(i) The information derived from the security testing is used primarily to promote the security of the owner or operator of a computer, computer system, or computer network; and ?(ii) The information derived from the security testing is used or maintained in a manner that does not facilitate copyright infringement or a violation of applicable law.

(5) Computer programs protected by dongles that prevent access due to malfunction or damage and which are obsolete. A dongle shall be considered obsolete if it is no longer manufactured or if a replacement or repair is no longer reasonably available in the commercial marketplace;

The problem is that Sony is good at making lawsuits and not much else lately. Connectix and Bleem couldn’t fight them so Sony never learned their lesson.


Sony attacks PlayStation “mod chips” and enforces a system of “region coding”

The next two are pretty similar. Again, overviews from the EFF:


Image: vtc.edu

Sony has sued a number of manufacturers and distributors of “mod chips” for alleged circumvention under the DMCA. In doing so, Sony has been able to enforce a system of “region coding” that raises significant anti-competitive issues.

“Mod chips” are after-market accessories that modify Sony PlayStation game consoles to permit games legitimately purchased in one part of the world to be played on a games console from another geographical region. Sony complains that mod chips can also be used to play pirated copies of games. As noted above, it is hard to see why an independent vendor of a product with legitimate uses should have to solve Sony’s piracy problems before entering the market.

Sony sued Gamemasters, distributor of the Game Enhancer peripheral device, which allowed owners of a U.S. PlayStation console to play games purchased in Japan and other countries. Although there was no infringement of Sony’s copyright, the court granted an injunction under the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions, effectively leaving gamers at the mercy of Sony’s region coding system.


Sony removes OtherOS option, and removes Linux support

Sony’s public blog has become a collection of unhappy customers. When Sony removed a feature they once used to market their console, they received 7,440 comments. It’s the most commented post of every Sony’s blog post that I could find (combined!).

Sony once used “OtherOS” as a marketing bullet point, and thousands of customers specifically bought PS3s for the OtherOS option. So many customers were upset, they filed a class-action suit that is still pending. Here’s an overview from Engadget:

Sony forced PS3 owners into a tough decision with the mandatory 3.21 firmware update: either lose online play or forgo Linux support. On Tuesday, Anthony Ventura chose door number three — and filed a lawsuit in California, asking the judge for class-action status. The complaint quotes Sony executives on numerous occasions saying how vital and important the “Install Other OS” feature was to the game console (it’s a computer, remember?) and claims breach of contract, false advertising, and several other causes of action against the entertainment giant. Sure, a lawsuit was bound to happen, given the number of angry PS3 owners out there, but here’s the thing: there’s no telling whether the court will grant a class-action certification here, and even if the case gets that far it’s pretty unlikely to force Sony to turn the feature back on — instead, customers will probably receive a token amount in damages while the lawyers get their full fees. For example, a rare, successful class-action suit against Palm — filed in 2004 — got Treo 600 owners only $27.50 in store credit, five years later. Meanwhile, we hear European PS3 owners just have to ask for their money back — which, we promise you, is the fastest way to put an end to your Linux-based PS3 nightmares.

Full Complaint (PDF). Part of being a maker, hacker, and innovator usually means you’re fond of installing Linux on something — it goes hand-in-hand with tinkering.

Here’s the install page on Sony’s site, which is now pretty much useless. Why did they remove this feature in a shipping product (with a forced update)? The old “security” excuse.

…the “Install Other OS” feature that was available on the PS3 systems prior to the current slimmer models, launched in September 2009. This feature enabled users to install an operating system, but due to security concerns, Sony Computer Entertainment will remove the functionality through the 3.21 system software update.

One of the worst things a company can do is upset people whose hobby is installing Linux on things. Sony’s removal of this feature brought dozens of teams around the world together, and we were all re-introduced to “GeoHot” (George Hotz). GeoHot was best known for jailbreaking the iPhone, allowing owners to use different carriers as well as put their own software on their own devices. Jailbreaking of phones is perfectly legal in the U.S. now, and we’re guessing it will eventually be fine for other devices too. GeoHot got to work:

In the end of 2009, Hotz announced his efforts to hack the Sony PlayStation 3, a console widely regarded as being the only fully locked and secure system of the seventh generation era. Hotz opened a blog to document his progress, and five weeks later, on January 22, 2010, he announced that he had successfully hacked the machine by enabling himself read and write access to the machine’s system memory and having hypervisor level access to the machine’s processor. Hotz also detailed the many things his work could allow, such as homebrew and PlayStation 2 emulation (a feature removed by Sony in newer revisions of the console to tackle production costs).

On January 26, 2010, Hotz released the exploit to the public. It requires the OtherOS function of the machine, and consists of a Linux kernel module and gaining control of the machine’s hypervisor via bus glitching. Hotz wrote that “Sony may have difficulty patching the exploit.” On March 28, 2010, Sony has responded by announcing to release a PlayStation 3 firmware update that removes the OtherOS feature, a feature that was already absent on the newer slim revisions of the machine. Hotz had then announced plans of a custom firmware, similar to the custom firmware for the PlayStation Portable, to enable Linux and OtherOS support, while still retaining the features of newer firmwares.

Source: Wikipedia. What did Sony eventually do? Lawsuit, and that brings us up to the present, final example.


Sony is suing makers, hackers, and tinkers for jailbreaking of the PS3 to play homebrew games

GeoHot made it possible to run your own software on your own device. Since then, Sony and GeoHot have been busy. Mostly Sony suing GeoHot.

  • On January 12, 2011, Sony sued Hotz and others on 8 claims, including violation of the DMCA, computer fraud, and copyright infringement. In response, Carnegie Mellon University professor David S. Touretzky mirrored Hotz’s writings and issued a statement supporting that Hotz’s publication is within his right to free speech.
  • On January 27, 2011, Sony’s request for a temporary restraining order (TRO) is granted by the US District Court for the Northern District of California. This forbids him from distributing the jailbreak, helping or encouraging others to jailbreak, and distributing information they’ve learned during the creation of the jailbreak. It also orders him to turn over computers and storage media used in the creation of the jailbreak to Sony’s lawyers. Professor Touretzky’s mirror was voluntarily censored following issue of the TRO, but Hotz’s writings and software have been mirrored elsewhere.
  • On February 12, 2011, Hotz posted a rap video on his official YouTube page explaining his Sony lawsuit.
  • On February 19, 2011, Hotz started a blog about the Sony lawsuit.

And here we are, almost a decade-long journey of Sony punishing their customers, fans, and innovators. George Hotz (GeoHot) isn’t just a random kid, he’s our future. He should be celebrated and considered a role model for anyone interested in science and technology.


Sony should take a page from Microsoft’s playbook and develop a PlayStation SDK for innovators with Hotz. Microsoft saw all the amazing projects and hacks with the Xbox Kinect, and they embraced it. Here’s a Microsoft employee celebrating jailbreaking and encouraging Hotz to hack their product! Brandon Watson is Director for Windows Phone 7.

Sony should not be suing GeoHot, they should be making a job offer. GeoHot isn’t going away, he has a bright future ahead — just look at what he’s done already, and he’s only 21!

He was a finalist at the 2005 ISEF competition in Portland OR with his project “The Mapping Robot”. Recognition included interviews on the Today Show and Larry King. Hotz was a finalist at the 2005 ISEF competition, with his project “The Googler”. Continuing with robots, Hotz competed in his school’s highly successful Titanium Knights battlebots team. George also worked on his project, “Neuropilot,” in which he was able to read EEG signals off his head with hardware from the OpenEEG project.

Hotz competed in the 2007 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, a science competition for high school students, where his project, entitled “I want a Holodeck”, received awards and prizes in several categories. Hotz has received considerable attention in mainstream media, including interviews on the Today Show, Fox, CNN, NBC, CBS, G4, ABC CNBC, and articles in several magazines, newspapers, and websites, including Forbes, and BBC. The Forbes article said Hotz hopes to go into Neuroscience: “hacking the brain,” he called it. In March 2008, PC World magazine listed George as one of the top 10 Overachievers under 21.

He entered the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2007, quickly after gaining notoriety for hacking the iPhone, but withdrew from the school after 1 quarter. In December 2007, Hotz travelled to Sweden to attend the Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar and talk about his 3D imaging invention (called Project Holodeck) that netted him a $20,000 Intel scholarship earlier that year.

Source: Wikipedia. Hotz has a long battle ahead in court. He’s received donations, and he’s “lawyering up” as they say in the biz. We think Sony is going to lose this one. While we’d love Sony to drop this and work with Hotz (as they eventually did with the Aibo community), we’re selfishly hoping Sony sticks to being Sony, goes to court, and loses. The biggest irony of all is that Sony was once fought for fair use and non-commercial use for their customers.

In the 1970s, Sony developed Betamax, a video tape recording format (VHS would later overtake Betamax). Universal Studios and the Walt Disney Company were among the film industry members who were wary of this development, but were also aware that the U.S. Congress was in the final stages of a major revision of U.S. copyright law, and would likely be hesitant to undertake any new protections for the film industry. The companies therefore opted to sue Sony and its distributors in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in 1976, alleging that because Sony was manufacturing a device that could potentially be used for copyright infringement, they were thus liable for any infringement that was committed by its purchasers. The complaint additionally included an unfair competition claim under the Lanham Act, but this was dismissed early in the course of the lawsuit.

Two years later, the District Court ruled for Sony, on the basis that noncommercial home use recording was considered fair use, that access to free public information is a First Amendment public interest served by this use.

This is the Sony before they got into the content business, when they were an underdog that made hardware. Sony was a champion of public interest, fair use, and the First Amendment. It’s time for Sony to get back to its roots.

What else? Sony is also missing out on innovation, specifically from their users. From a recent NYTimes article

Mr. von Hippel, who has been researching innovation for 30 years, estimates that when it comes to scientific instruments 77 percent of the innovations come from users. Fields like medicine can be particularly fertile for creative tinkering. A classic example of user innovation is the heart-lung machine. In the late 1930s Dr. John Heysham Gibbon approached manufacturers about building one, but they did not know how to do it or whether there was a market for it. So Dr. Gibbon spent years developing one himself before this essential device was manufactured commercially.

Imagine going back in time and convincing Sony to work with, not against, their users. Where would they be now? Sony had decades of innovation and created an industry. What happens next is up to Sony but it’s also up to us. The Aibo community was able to get Sony to reconsider their actions, perhaps the maker world can as well. Here is the press contact page for all of Sony. Please consider sending a polite email asking them to drop the lawsuit against GeoHot and the community of makers, hackers, and innovators. I’ll also be sending a physical copy of this article to the CEO of Sony.

This collection of Sony’s missteps is also a handy reminder before your next purchase — where will I spend my next $20 when I need a decent set of headphones? Or a flat screen TV, or something else? Will anyone even bother to hack their stuff anymore, Apple already won the “Walkman” from them – where will Sony innovate, and when? The worst thing you can be in consumer electronics is irrelevant, and that’s where Sony is heading.


Besides — if none of this works — it’s back to tweeting “46DCEAD317FE45D80923EB97E4956410D4CDB2C2″. Just like Sony did…

Update: It appears Sony (Germany) has raided the home of a PS3 hacker today 2/24/2011.

Phillip Torrone

Editor at large – Make magazine. Creative director – Adafruit Industries, contributing editor – Popular Science. Previously: Founded – Hack-a-Day, how-to editor – Engadget, Director of product development – Fallon Worldwide, Technology Director – Braincraft.


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