Computing

Game Over for Mod Chips?

As an underground culture in game machine-tweaking hardware runs afoul of federal law, copyright protection is clashing with user innovation.

Not long ago, gamers could go to a Web site called isonews.com to discuss and order mod chips: hardware that, when soldered to a console’s motherboard, let them play cool Japanese imports, bootlegs, and assorted software on the Xbox or PS2. Today the site bears a very different message: it’s the property of the U.S. government.

In February, the Feds seized the domain from David “krazy8” Rocci, a 22-year-old in Blacksburg, VA, who used the site to sell 450 Enigmah mod chips. After facing $500,000 in fines and five years in prison for allegedly violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Rocci was sentenced in April to spend five months in the slammer and pay $28,500 in fines. That’s an unprecedented ruling in the brief history of the DMCA. And it shows how this quirky gray market hardware is leaving so many companies and federal agents running scared.

Throughout digital culture, homebrew modifications have deep and important roots. Some of the best-selling brands-Doom, the Sims, and Half-Life to name a few-owe their success to their extensibility. Coded in a way to encourage hacker-minded players to rework the sounds and graphics, these franchises spawn thriving and vested communities. Gamers design mods that resemble their schools, their homes, or their favorite movies. Many of these mod makers acquire such advanced skills that game companies fight over hiring them. Mods are the boot camp for the technology industry. And other businesses have taken notice. Software ranging from Windows Media Player to America Online’s instant messenger program allows users to modify and design their own graphical user interfaces.

Mod chips extend that hacker ethic into the hardware, cracking open the fixed technology to allow for a more expansive gaming experience. Mod chip fans are like vinyl record fetishists: obsessive souls who feel compelled to play all the freaky, foreign games. And there are plenty of these games to play. All kinds of bizarre foreign games, including dating simulations, adult titles, never make it to U.S. shores; Sony releases only about a quarter of its PS2 games in the United States. The games that do make it over often go through a cryptic localization process that. But some gamers want to play the originals-just as, say, a film buff might want to go to the video store to get the Japanese version of The Ring.

But mod chips aren’t just for gamers. A coalition of hackers across the world is using mod chips to run something perfectly legal: Linux on the Xbox. Andy Green, cofounder of the Xbox Linux Project, says the project is, in part, an act of protest against Microsoft’s continued attempts to lock out alternative operating systems. “The Xbox is not a gaming console,” Green contends. “It’s a Windows-only PC.” Michael Robertson, head of Lindows.com-developer of a Linux version called Lindows-even put up $200,000 for the first person who could accomplish the task.

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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From the latest smartphones to advances in quantum computing, the hardware behind today's digital age is rapidly changing.

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