Play Dead:

The hardcore fans of Aibo, a popular robotic pet,
are a
creative, if geeky, bunch. Since 1999, when the lifelike toys first appeared
beneath Christmas trees, hundreds of Aibo enthusiasts have programmed their
charges to perform tricks unimagined in the boardrooms of Sony, the robot's
creator. By expertly tweaking Aibo's code, hobbyists have enabled the robobeast
to boogie to Madonna's "Vogue," double as a breadbox-sized surveillance camera,
or growl "Bite my shiny metal robot ass!" All these behaviors are infinitely
cooler than the bland caninelike moves that unenhanced Aibos perform.

Rather than delight in its customers' passion, however, Sony is playing the
Grinch. On October 26, Sony sent a stern letter to a man known as "AiboPet." The
company voiced its displeasure with his Web site, HREF="" TARGET="outlink">, which offered
such downloadable freebies as "Disco Aibo," a dance program, and "Brainbo," a
voice-recognition package. Sony complained that AiboPet was violating the Digital
Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a 1998 law that largely forbids tinkering with
copyrighted systems. Rather than face civil or criminal penalties, AiboPet
shuttered most of his site, though not before firing a last salvo at Sony: "Life
is too short to deal with these idiots."

The DMCA has a knack for evoking that sort of bitterness. In securing the
law's passage three years ago, the DMCA's big-name backers--media and software
titans such as the Motion Picture Association of America and Microsoft--trumpeted
the bill as vital to preserving intellectual-property rights in the digital era.
The law's meatiest section prohibits the circumvention of technologies that
"effectively control access to a copyrighted work"--that is, the encryption
mechanisms designed to frustrate bootleggers. The DMCA's supporters argued that
the measure would protect consumers from cheap knockoffs.

But companies have instead capitalized on the DMCA's vague language to
bludgeon the likes of AiboPet, small-fry hackers who dare fiddle with devices
purchased legally--a practice that was formerly protected under the fair-use
doctrine. If Aibo owners can't poke around in their pet's code, they can't
program new behaviors. And if they can't program new behaviors, their only means
of bolstering Aibo is to purchase a lackluster $450 "performance kit" from Sony.

AiboPet blasts Sony's business strategy as hypocritical. He claims that the
company has incorporated several of his software advances into its commercial
products, such as outfitting newer Aibo models with a version of his "AiboScope"
program, which lets the machine snap digital photos. Sony is thus using the DMCA
to warp technology's public domain into a one-way street. "I really don't care
about them stealing ideas and more from me," grumbles AiboPet, who spoke on
condition that his real name not be revealed. "As long as they let me keep doing
my stuff." (Sony's only comment was a prepared statement that reiterated the
company's dedication to protecting its copyrights.)

The DMCA is even being used to chill criticism of flawed products. This past
April, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) took umbrage at the
work of Edward Felten, a Princeton-based computer scientist. Felten had bested an
encryption scheme created by the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), a
record-company consortium that's trying to prevent albums from being copied and
distributed electronically. When word leaked that Felten would air his results at
a Pittsburgh conference, the RIAA informed him that he "could be subject to
enforcement actions under federal law."

Though Felten eventually delivered his paper, he worries that the brouhaha has
frightened many of his colleagues into silence. "The goal of doing research is to
publish your results," says Felten, whose lawsuit against the RIAA--a potential
legal challenge to the DMCA--was summarily dismissed by a federal judge in late
November. "If you're worried about your ability to publish on a particular topic,
it makes it a lot less likely that you'll talk on the topic."

Easing the DMCA is a technogeek cause célèbre, but lawmakers
seem oblivious to the moaning. Democratic Senator Ernest Hollings of South
Carolina has drafted a sequel to the DMCA, the Security Systems Standards and
Certification Act (SSSCA), which would mandate that all "interactive digital
devices"--PCs, Discman CD players, even digital thermometers--contain
government-approved anti-piracy controls. Anyone caught de-encrypting those
controls would face up to five years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Eugene
Spafford, co-chair of the Association for Computing Machinery's public-policy
committee, calls the measure "the equivalent of outlawing copy machines because
they could produce outlaw copies."

The hunt for bin Laden has pushed the SSSCA onto the back burner, but given
the Beltway pull of the bill's primary backers--Disney and the News Corporation,
who insist that the law will promote broadband deployment--it won't stay tabled
for long. Lining up in opposition are hardware manufacturers, who dread
government oversight of their designs. But deference is chic during wartime, and
the hardware lobby may find that its traditional laissez-faire spiel no longer
carries much weight on Capitol Hill.

Aibo owners, at least, aren't giving up without a fight. In response to the
DMCA fracas, several enthusiasts have called for a boycott of Sony products;
AiboPet himself canceled an order for his fifth robot. Sony, meanwhile, just
released a rosy sales projection--it expects to sell 10,000 units of its newest
Aibo model, the ERS-220, which goes for $1,500. That's a lot to pay for a pet on
such a tight leash.