Sony Dash and general device lock-in

It is so tremendously frustrating when a company releases a device which is locked down and then discontinues it without allowing modifications.

I have a Sony Dash. It is a really slick piece of hardware with a capacitive touch screen and accelerometer. It is also based off of the Chumby OS. I was hoping that I could add the ability to pull media from a server I have downstairs… But nooo.

I’m beginning to think that a law which makes hardware lockdown illegal would be in alignment with the goals of copyright and patents. Namely, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;” . Emphasis on promoting the progress of science.

There are some downsides, such as the cases where a company sells the hardware at a loss in order to recoup with the sales of content. However, I wonder whether the benefit to the economy through the ability of anyone to use hardware in unusual ways would outweigh the loss of that particular business model.

As I understand it, the goal of patents and copyright is to protect innovators and encourage them to create new things which benefit society as a whole. Not to establish ownership of an idea as an element of property rights. As such, when hardware is locked down with the pure goal of keeping competitors out, it is detrimental to our economy as a whole. This is underscored when the company in question is not harmed monetarily when the hardware is used for other purposes.

I’d be curious to know whether there is any case law or statute which establishes the right of an individual to use something which he/she has purchased in whatever way he/she wants, as long as the use does not violate other statutes. I wonder whether such a precedent/statute could be extended to encompass the actions of a company to infringe on the previously stated ‘right’.

I’m not saying that a company must go out of its way to make it possible to modify a device. That would be a positive ‘right’ and damaging. Rather, it would be illegal to put in place protections whose entire goal is to keep modification from happening. For example, on the Sony Dash, there is a check which makes it impossible to load a modified firmware without having it signed by Sony’s private key.

There are cases where such system level protection could be justified, for example with secure systems where software modification would be considered a breach. However, in all such cases, it should be possible for the owner to modify the software. If the owner wanted to lock down the system, it would be permissible.

One wrinkle might be single use systems where the ability to modify might put others in danger. For example, if the computers in a vehicle were modifiable, it could potentially allow someone malicious to endanger the operator of the vehicle. However, this is impacted by the fact that there are other parts of the vehicle which could also be modified to cause damage, so the potential is not really changed by the presence of another attack vector. Especially if the system requires physical access to modify.

Another element might be the case of an owner modifying his/her vehicle’s computers and causing danger to others on the road. Similarly to the above case, a poorly installed tire or other vehicular modification would cause the same effect.

However, in the above cases there are fascinating opportunities for smart people to modify their vehicles and do things which could found new industries. What would the positive economic impact be if every individual could come up with an idea, purchase the hardware and then modify it to make that a reality. Entirely new industries would appear. Devices which would have been individual failures might become successes. The Sony Dash was a failure. If there were an easy way to put a distribution of Android on it, would that have been different?

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