The PS3 is too hard to crack

A story came out the other day about George Hotz – the infamous hacker who released a hack for the PS3 a few months ago. His hack only works for an old version of the PS3 system, and Sony moved quickly to invalidate the hack using updates. It was the first time anyone claimed to have hacked the PS3, but now he’s giving up on the PS3, saying it’s just too difficult.

I think this hints at the direction companies will take in the future to bulletproof their systems against piracy – having tight control over the hardware. No doubt, companies will get more and more skilled at this as time passes. People will complain that “it’s their hardware and they should be able to do whatever they want with it” – citing their desire to create “homebrew” or run Linux on their machine, but they’ll be blocked on a technical level (not a legal level) from doing this.

The EFF has promoted exactly this kind of argument by analogy to a car:

“It is my automobile at the end of the day,” von Lohmann said, a reference that iPhone users should be allowed to do what they want with their phones, just like car owners do.

Of course, there’s also a major problem with that kind of argument. First, the laws do not recognize people’s legal right in all cases to modify physical objects however they want – even if they own them. For example, you cannot legally convert a gun into an automatic weapon. Your car must also conform to pollution and noise standards. In other words, it doesn’t matter that you own the gun or the car – there are limits to what you’re allowed to do with it. There’s also issues with copyright that run afoul of the “I should be allowed to do whatever I want with my property”. While some people might argue that owning a book, music, or software means they should be allowed to do whatever they want with it – including filesharing, this argument quickly runs into a problem: most people (even filesharers) dislike the idea of commercial piracy (i.e. selling pirated material for money). For example, if a guy goes and creates a thousand copies of some new DVD and sells them on the street for a couple dollars each, he’s involved in commercial piracy. Logically, “I should be allowed to do whatever I want with the stuff I own” means allowing people to engage in commercial piracy since they own the original DVD.

The other method that console makers use is what Microsoft is doing: while the XBox 360 has been cracked, they control the servers where people can buy new games or get online to play multiplayer games with other people. Microsoft can lock people out of their servers for running cracked XBoxes – and that’s exactly what they did right before the launch of Modern Warfare 2. They locked a million XBox owners out of their servers. Even the EFF had to concede that Microsoft had the right to do so because they own the servers. While this second strategy is less effective than the PS3’s hardware lockout, it seems to be pretty effective, judging from Modern Warfare’s piracy gap on the XBox 360 vs the PC – the numbers I’ve seen show that 86% of the people playing Modern Warfare 2 on the XBox paid for it, while only 6% of the people playing it on the PC paid for it.

Anyway, it’s still pretty interesting that the PS3 has weathered the attacks from hackers as well as it has. It shows the potential of technical methods to block piracy – despite the refrain of pirates that someone will immediately crack all piracy prevention systems.

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