Sony uses embedded Linux in a wide variety of its consumer electronics
products: televisions, video recorders, navigation devices, and more. Up
until fairly recently, it gave something back to the community by
supporting Linux installation on its
PlayStation game consoles. While Sony removed the "Install Other OS"
option on new PlayStation 3 (PS3) systems back in August 2009, there
were millions of older PS3s that could be used for Cell processor hacking
on Linux—no more.
[Japanese press release] (LWN
coverage) that the v3.21 firmware release will disable the "Install Other OS"
feature, but it also threatens users with a long list of features that will
no longer work if the "upgrade" isn't installed. One might guess that
either April fools day is not celebrated in Japan or that Sony Computer
Entertainment (SCE) is irony-impaired because the release date for the
firmware is April 1. The timing is also a bit suspicious in that it seems
like a measure aimed at punishing the "mod" community for a recent successful PS3 "jailbreak".
The ostensible reason for removing the "Install Other OS" feature is
"security concerns", but as PS3 hacker George Hotz points
out, jailbreaking the PS3 requires opening up the enclosure. The
procedure is not for the faint-of-heart—it involves pulsing a particular
solder point on the PS3 board "low for ~40ns". This is not
something a casual user will have any way to do, if they were even willing
to try it. It certainly isn't a vector for malware attacks either.
Unsuspecting PS3 Linux users who upgrade will lose the contents of the
Linux portion of the hard drive. Because of that, and other restrictions
enforced in the new firmware, Hotz has vowed to
find a way around those restrictions. He previously had no
plans to create custom firmware for the device, but because of SCE's
latest move, he does now:
And this is about more than this feature right now. It's about whether
these companies have the right to take away advertised features from a
product you purchased. Imagine if an exploit were found in Safari on the
iPhone, but instead of fixing it, Apple decides to pull web browsing
altogether. Legally, they may be within their right to do so, but we have
to show them it's the wrong move for the future of the product and the
Hotz has also been part of the iPhone/iPod/iPad jailbreaking community, having
released multiple software and hardware jailbreaking hacks for those
platforms, so his track record is good. That means it is pretty likely he
will come up with a way to run v3.21 and still run Linux—just what
SCE evidently fears. But he is also clear that doing so is not about
"piracy", it is about taking back the control of your device: "Hacking
isn't about getting what you didn't pay for, it's about making sure you do
get what you did."
That is the crux of the matter for many. Without the firmware update, PS3
owners will not be able to do a number of things they thought they got when
buying the device: playing games online, watching new Blu-ray videos,
playing new PS3 games, and so on. The EFF is concerned
that new Blu-ray disks could even completely disable the Blu-ray drive by
revoking the AACS decryption key in the older firmware. Because of the
management (DRM) features
included in content meant to be used by PS3s, SCE has the technical means
to stop existing, working devices from performing those tasks on new
content. The EFF puts it this way:
This is just the latest example of the way in which digital rights
management hurts consumers — at the end of the day, hardware that includes
DRM is always silently waiting to protect someone else's interests, at the
expense of your own.
SCE would undoubtedly argue that it needs to maintain the integrity of its
online games, so requiring certain firmware upgrades to participate in
its network is reasonable. There is something to that argument, but there
is zero evidence that allowing Linux (or any other OS) to be installed had
played any kind of role in game "cheats"—in fact its hard to see how
it could. If anything is flawed, it is the hardware which allowed Hotz to
essentially circumvent the hypervisor that SCE put in place to wall off
Linux from the 3D video hardware. In addition, that argument falls flat
when considering playing new DVDs or local games.
It is believed that PS3s which need to be
serviced for a hardware problem of some kind will be silently upgraded to the
latest firmware, which would wipe out any Linux partition on the disk. So,
who owns this device that you have, supposedly, bought and paid for? Once
a given set of features is released, and works, isn't the manufacturer
honor-bound (if not legally bound) to not actively work to disable those
features? Some PS3 customers relied on being able to install Linux, while
still keeping the other features of the console. In fact, SCE made
assurances that the "Install Other OS" feature would be maintained as
recently as February.
It is interesting to note that there are folks in the HPC community who
PS3s by the thousands to create Linux clusters. Other than the occasional
fragging expedition at lunch, one would guess that the vast majority of
those machines never actually run games at all. There is clearly a market
for low-cost Cell-based machines, but SCE evidently doesn't see
that—or can't make money at it. It may be running PS3s on the razor blade
model; selling the consoles at a loss, while making up the difference
by selling peripherals and games.
Its hard to see how SCE comes out of this looking like anything other than
a bully. It sold hardware with a feature set that folks found
attractive, so they bought them. Now, when it is somehow inconvenient for
SCE to continue supporting some of those features, it turns them off, with
little warning and almost no recourse. The vast majority of PS3 owners may
be completely unaffected, but those who relied upon SCE's word may think
twice before buying from it again. In the meantime, they are likely to
follow Hotz's progress with great interest.
Comments (27 posted)
The free software community, along with the commercial ecosystem which
surrounds it, is widely seen as having pointed the way toward successful,
collaborative development of common resources. We have seen a number of
attempts to port the free software model to other areas of endeavor. Open
content, headlined by sites like Wikipedia, has adopted this model with
considerable success. Other areas, such as open hardware, are still trying
to find their way. Your editor recently read an interesting book (Rob
Carlson's Biology is
), which raises an interesting question: is there a place
for an ecosystem based around free "software" running on biological
The core point of the book is that biological hacking is quickly headed
toward becoming yet another engineering discipline. The "device physics"
of standard parts are being worked out, the development tools are becoming
more sophisticated, and the level of skill required to do interesting
things is dropping. The annual International
Genetically Engineered Machine competition which is intended, among other
things, to increase the number of "biological parts" available, is getting
high-scoring entries from high school students. The amount of hacking on
biological substrates is increasing quickly, and will continue to do so.
The amount of creativity we will be seeing in this area inspires both hope
and outright terror. Biological hacking has the potential to transform
health care, address energy problems, mitigate climate change, and more.
Or it could wreak environmental devastation and facilitate horrifying
attacks by either individuals or governments. Carlson strongly advocates
openness as the best policy for dealing with this technology. Only through
openness, he says, will we develop the kind of economy we need to make the
best use of this new technology while simultaneously understanding what
others are up to and defending ourselves against mistakes and abuses.
Trying to keep technology under wraps never works.
Your editor might compare attempts to restrict biotechnology with
governmental efforts to restrict encryption technology a generation ago.
Openness does not just mean freedom from regulatory interference, though;
Carlson takes a long look at the possibility of creating a successful
commercial ecosystem based on the open source model. At an abstract level,
the idea looks compelling: it is not hard to see programming with
nucleotides as being fundamentally the same task as programming with bits.
A nucleotide is able to encode two bits rather than one, and the underlying
processor is smaller, wetter, and smellier, but it's a program
nonetheless. Given that tools for working with DNA are following a path
similar to that of computers - they are rapidly becoming smaller, cheaper,
and more powerful - there is a lot to be said for the creation of
freely-licensed libraries based on genetic programs developed in garages
There are some efforts afoot to do exactly that. The BioBricks Foundation is working
toward the creation of a set of freely-available biological components.
Another initiative is Biological Open Source,
appropriately known as BiOS. These efforts are promising, but there is a
large problem looming - one which will be familiar to LWN readers.
That problem, of course, is patents. Genetic sequences are currently
patentable in the US and elsewhere, so companies operating in this area are
accumulating as many of them as possible. Things are quickly getting to the
point where it is
difficult to work commercially in biotechnology without running into
patents held by others - patents which, often, cover fundamental natural
phenomena. Carlson brings up some interesting history; it seems that the
automotive and aviation industries both ran into this problem; in both
cases, it got to where companies could not do anything because they were
forever caught up in patent litigation. In both cases, in the US, the
government intervened, forcing the creation of patent pools so that
companies would stop suing each other and get back to doing interesting
things with the technology.
Patent pools (like patents in general) favor large, established
corporations over smaller companies. But it's the small companies which
are the source of most innovation in any field. Carlson worries that the
US is headed toward a situation where those companies cannot afford to
exist and innovation will be strangled. An open-source-like approach to
biotechnology might just be a way out of that situation.
But doing open source in this field, despite its similarities with
software, is going to be hard. Software gets copyright protection
worldwide; that makes it easy to use copyright licensing to create a legal
regime where people (and companies) feel that it is in their interest to
contribute. Genetic sequences have no such protection, so patents are the
only way to go for anybody feeling the need to gain a degree of control
over how a discovery is used. Copyleft-style patent licensing is possible,
but it is more awkward, and, in any case, the high cost of obtaining
patents creates a barrier to entry that does not exist for licensing based
on copyrights. Lone biohackers working in their garages are not going to
be contributing components to a community based on patents.
As a result of the different legal environment, open-source-like
efforts in biotechnology must form their
understandings under different terms than the software community uses.
BioBricks must be placed in the public domain; the draft BioBrick Public
Agreement - a contributor agreement, not a license - requires
contributors to give "An irrevocable promise not to assert any
property rights held by the Contributor over Users of the contributed
Materials." BiOS, instead, is organized more like a patent pool
with a fee to enter. Neither of these approaches is seen (by Carlson) as
being ideal, but he also admits to being short of better ideas.
What may be required, in the end, is a new and different legal regime for
biological discoveries. As Carlson notes, neither patents nor copyrights
are mentioned by name in the US Constitution; they are legislative creations.
Someday, maybe, a legislature rather more enlightened than those governing
us now will find a way to foster open biotechnology development that works
at all levels. It will be interesting to see whether the recent US
District Court ruling throwing out genetic patents inspires any useful
thinking in that direction.
One need not be a speculative fiction author to imagine a future world
where the freedom to use, modify, and distribute biological code is (at
least) as important as those freedoms applied to software running on
silicon. We do not seem to be building a world which includes those
freedoms, though; we do not even really have a good sense for what that
world would look like. The biotechnology industry, it seems, is in need of
its own personalities to fill the roles Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds,
and the many others who have helped to make free software work.
Comments (25 posted)
It has been just over seven years since the "SCOSource" initiative showed
its true colors and filed suit
asking for $1 billion in damages. Much has happened
in that time; the nature of the charges has evolved considerably, the price
tag has increased, other companies have been pulled in, and SCO has gone
into bankruptcy. In the process, SCO attack has, like a vaccination, served to
strengthen the community's legal defenses considerably. It has been a wild
show to watch.
the most surprising developments came when Novell abruptly
announced that, in fact, it (and not SCO) was the owner of the Unix
copyrights upon which much of the litigation was based.
SCO responded with a "slander of title" lawsuit which has been a convoluted
multi-year affair in its own right. But, on March 30, a jury in US
District Court ruled that, in fact, no copyrights had been transferred to
SCO and that Novell remained the owner of Unix.
This outcome was far from guaranteed. SCO's claims against IBM and the
Linux community have been repeatedly shown to be without merit, but the
Novell litigation was different. That was all based on a vague
agreement," twice amended, which was seemingly written by lawyers who were
not doing their job. What SCO purchased was truly unclear, and there was
no telling what a jury might decide. Now, perhaps, we have some clarity.
It is tempting to see this ruling as the end of the story; rightfully it
should be. But anybody who has watched this case for any period of time
knows better. The SCO affair is kind of like a bad zombie movie; the plot
is implausible, the acting is horrible (ask any of us who sat though all
those "Chris and Darl show" conference calls back at the beginning), and,
even though you know the good guys must win in the end, that obnoxious
zombie just keeps coming back and ruining the party. SCO, which has just obtained
a $2 million loan from Ralph Yarro (one of the original
architects of this whole mess), may well appeal. Or
perhaps it will find a willing buyer for the lawsuit out there. It does
not seem like SCO to slip quietly into Chapter 7 bankruptcy at this
One should also remember that the Novell case was a sideshow; IBM is the
main event. Losing the ownership of the copyrights clearly cannot help
SCO's case, but it has long since been shown that there's nothing covered
by those copyrights in Linux anyway. Much of the dispute was over code
clearly owned by IBM, but which SCO claimed could only be distributed
under the proprietary Unix terms. SCO might just choose to pursue its breach of contract
(and related) claims. The fact that Novell claims the right to issue "get
out of jail free" cards with regard to Unix licensing will complicate
matters, and could prove fodder for extensive legal maneuvering in its own
Meanwhile, as long as some shred of SCO remains, one can only imagine that
IBM will not be in a mood to forgive, forget, or drop its counterclaims.
IBM has clearly put many millions of dollars into this
fight; its chances of getting any of that back would appear to be
approximately zero, but IBM is unlikely to want to leave SCO in a position
to plan another attack.
SCO has long since ceased to be a threat to Linux, of course; at this
point, most of us can afford to sit back and watch the remainder of the
show. But we should not forget that SCO set out to kill our community.
The attack was baseless and clownish, but it still created considerable
uncertainty and expense. The sad fact of the matter
is that, when companies lose in the market, they try to win in the
courtroom, especially in the US.
There will be other attackers, and at least some of those
attackers will not make so many silly mistakes.
In the past, LWN has asked Novell to clarify what it intends to do with the
Unix copyrights that, once again, it seems to clearly own. Those
copyrights cannot have much - if any - commercial value at this point. It
would make great sense for Novell to release all of that code as free
software, optimally under a permissive license. Until that happens, those
copyrights will be a temptation to those who think they can somehow use
them in litigation. That zombie, at least, can be definitively killed.
Comments (9 posted)
Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
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