Private property should not be corporately controlled

By Luke Wilusz

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was passed in 1998, was originally intended to ensure copyright protection for electronic content in the brave new world of the digital age. The act criminalizes the production or distribution of software or hardware that allows people to circumvent copy-protection measures on electronic entertainment such as movies, music and video games. It also makes it illegal to create or distribute hardware or software that would allow people to access services like pay-per-view television for free.

However, in recent years, large corporations have wielded the DMCA as a tool to stop people from doing things that should technically constitute fair use. In November 2010, Microsoft pressed charges against Southern California resident Matthew Crippen for modifying an Xbox 360 game console. Crippen was charged with violating the DMCA by modifying the console to let it play copied and pirated games.

Piracy is not the only possible use for such modifications, though. Hacked consoles can also run homebrew games and software freely distributed online by independent programmers. Crippen’s case was ultimately dismissed in December 2010 due to conflicting testimonies and the lack of fair, admissible evidence.

Not to be left out of the legal fray, Sony is also currently engaged in a lawsuit against 21-year-old George Hotz, the first person to ever successfully hack the Playstation 3 to allow it to run unauthorized software. Not only did Hotz crack the PS3’s software, but he also distributed the code necessary to do so online. Sony is threatening to sue anybody who posts the code online, even though a Sony representative re-posted it on Twitter without knowing what it was after somebody sent it to him.

The corporate giants of the video game industry are using their legal teams to abuse the DMCA and intimidate people who should have every right to modify devices they paid for. If a person buys a machine, that machine is his or her property, and he or she should be able to do what he or she wants with it. If the law lets corporations dictate what we can or cannot do with our own private property, then we don’t really own our devices at all—we’re just leasing them.

That’s not to say that copyright infringement should be legalized. Game developers and artists of all kinds deserve to be fairly compensated for their work. However, corporations shouldn’t punish people who want to use their property slightly differently than its creators intended. Just because a modification can allow people to play pirated games doesn’t mean that’s what they will use it for. Instead of punishing curious technophiles who like to tinker with their machines and see what they’re capable of, these companies should be going after people who specifically traffic in pirated software.

The U.S. Copyright Office added an exemption to the DMCA in July 2010 that made it legal for consumers to hack or “jailbreak” their iPhones or other smart phones to allow them to run apps that aren’t officially authorized by the manufacturers. The reasoning for the exemption was that it is still fair use of the device to run unofficial software as long as no copyright infringement is committed. It allows iPhone users, for example, to have free choice over the programs they can run, rather than being limited to what Apple tells them they’re allowed to run.

The Copyright Office should consider extending these fair use exemptions to video game consoles and, for that matter, all electronic devices. There’s no law that says it’s illegal to add a new stereo to a car or install an alternative operating system on a personal computer, and those same rights should extend to all property. The issue at hand isn’t one of facilitating piracy, but rather a question of restricting people’s use of their own private property. There’s got to be a better way to prevent copyright infringement without taking control of personal devices away from people who paid good money for them.