March 30, 2010 | By Peter Eckersley

Sony Steals Feature From Your PlayStation 3

If the messages in EFF's inbox today are anything to go by, a lot of people are upset and angry — with good reason — over Sony's announcement that it is going to disable a feature that allows people to run GNU/Linux and other operating systems on their PlayStation 3 consoles.

Sony had included a hypervisor feature called "Other OS" on the PS3, which meant that you didn't need to break all the DRM on the device in order to install a Linux kernel or other custom software. But on Sunday, Sony announced that the Other OS feature will be disabled in the next firmware release. In short, Sony is effectively downgrading PS3s already sold and in the hands of consumers — when you bought it, it could play games, play Blu-ray discs, and run GNU/Linux. After April 1, it's an inferior product.

The backstory is that Sony provided the Other OS feature in order to support IBM's Cell Project, which produced the PS3's CPU and made it practical to use PS3 consoles as compute nodes for a scientific supercomputer. The U.S. Army did just that, buying more than 2,000 PS3s to build a supercomputer. Lots of hobbyists also made use of the Other OS feature, using it to write their own games and creatively repurpose their PS3s.

Recently, however, a hobbyist named Geohot announced that he was able to use the Other OS feature along with a bit of soldering in a manner that gave him more control over the PS3 hardware than Sony had intended. Sony responded with the "upgrade" that removes the Other OS feature.

PlayStation 3 owners aren't technically required to upgrade their firmware. However, Sony has built a vast and sticky web of DRM restrictions that will kick in to make life miserable for anyone who declines the "upgrade":

  • It will be impossible to play PS3 games online.
  • It will be impossible to play new PS3 games.
  • It will be impossible to watch new Blu-ray videos.
  • New Blu-ray discs could even disable the Blu-ray drive entirely if they contain an AACS Host Revocation List that affects the old firmware version.
  • Videos on DTCP-IP media servers will be disabled.

So, as an owner of an affected PS3, how can you keep all the features that Sony sold you? Well, Geohot is reportedly working on custom firmware that would preserve the Other OS feature while avoiding the DRM meltdowns mentioned bove. At that point, we see if Sony will bring in lawyers brandishing the anticircumvention provisions of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (a tactic that backfired when Sony tried it on Aibo robot dog hobbyists a few years ago).

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.

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