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This thriving underground culture has caused an overground controversy. The contention is that mod chips, like almost any technology, have illegal applications. According to the feds’ notice now posted on Rocci’s site, “mod chips illegally circumvent built-in security protections and allow individuals to play pirated games.” The Interactive Digital Software Association claims that the industry loses roughly $3 billion annually to pirated software. As a result, the holy trinity of game publishers-Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo-is suing the pants off anyone associated with mod chips, including a giant distributor in Hong Kong called Lik Sang. The game companies don’t want anyone cracking their hardware.

A Microsoft spokesperson says the company “strongly feels that it is of paramount importance to protect intellectual property rights for economic growth, technological innovation, and most importantly, the confidence of consumers who count on the integrity and quality of the products they acquire.” In other words: keep your paws off our motherboard, or else. Across the Web, technophiles have another view on mod chips: they can save the fledgling Xbox’s life. The irony is that by crushing the mod chips, Microsoft could be alienating its most impassioned Xbox users.

The laws surrounding mod chips are nebulous. Last year, a judge in Australia ruled that the chips do not violate copyright protection laws. In the United States, however, the DMCA has been interpreted in a different way. Passed in 1998, this law bans not only the circumvention of copyright protection, but any technology that enables such a circumvention to occur. This prohibition applies even if the copyright protection is being bypassed for a legal application, such as running Linux or playing a CD copy of a game made by the purchaser.

In essence, the emerging technology of this gray market is creating yet another gray area. It’s analogous to what’s happening in the world of file-sharing. File-sharing is not itself illegal. Two users can go on Kazaa and swap goulash recipes without ruffling any feathers. And some copyright owners, such as new bands trying to get someone to listen to their music, actually want to distribute songs for free. Nevertheless, two of the proponents of the DMCA, the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, have pursued the network operators themselves, regardless of the legal potential of these services.

Rocci’s prison time has portent not only for the gaming industry, but other businesses as well. It raises a fundamental question: what is the role of user modification in the digital age? And what, if any, limits should there be? The answer might reside in Hong Kong, one of the hotbeds for mod chips. Pascal Clarysse, a spokesperson for Lik Sang, says that a mere 10 percent of the company’s revenues come from mod chips. One of the reasons mod chips exist is because the console developers are not meeting the needs of their audience. Gamers in Asia, for example, must buy Playstation 2 consoles that work either with Japanese or U.S. products. Someone who wants to play titles from both countries is out of luck. A mod chip fixes that dilemma. “It’s not just about playing pirate games,” Clarysse says, “it’s about opening up the limits.”

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