Aibo, the Sony Corporation's popular robot dog, has delighted scores of critics and consumers since its introduction. But the plastic pup has also caused its creators some grief. Sony is currently struggling to resolve a copyright dispute that centers on the work of a quirky hacker known only as AiboPet. The controversy poses serious questions about the proper use of robots in homes and exposes a potentially stifling effect of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998.
The copyright at the heart of the case protects Aibo's encrypted brain. AiboPet violated that copyright when he cracked the robot's source code to reverse-engineer software that allows Aibo owners to teach their pets to dance, speak, obey wireless commands and share the color video that serves as their vision, among other things. None of the programs are usable without Sony hardware and software. They earned AiboPet no money. He never revealed the encryption code or the program he used to defeat it. Still, because the DMCA makes it illegal to break any encrypted digital code, AiboPet's actions made him a criminal. The fun began when Sony decided to treat him like one.
Image: Kate Wong
AIBO, Sony's robotic dog, can acquire new talents through software developed by Sony or by a hacker known only as AiboPet.
On October 26 this past year Sony Entertainment Robots America sent AiboPet a letter notifying him that he had violated the DMCA and demanding that he remove all software based on their proprietary code from his Web site. AiboPet complied immediately¿and complained loudly. As a result, thousands of Sony's best customers organized a boycott of Sony products and besieged the company with petitions.
It is not uncommon for Aibo enthusiasts to own several of the sophisticated¿and expensive¿robot dogs and to snap up each addition to a steadily increasing library of official Aibo software at about $150 each. One Aibo owner added his name to an open letter of protest with this addendum: "If it had not been for AiboPet's information, his invaluable knowledge and his generosity in sharing it with the Aibo community, I would not have purchased an Aibo, all the various software, [memory] sticks and yes, even my computer, a Sony VAIO, which I only purchased because of its stick reader." Another wrote: "This is outrageous! I cancelled my memory sticks that were on order. Tonight I was also going to order the wireless LAN and software...but I have now decided not to. Also I was going to order the 310 [model] for Christmas for my son, but I will no longer do that! I will be spending my money elsewhere, but never again with Sony!"
One of AiboPet's biggest hits was the program that teaches Aibos to two-step. Like Kevin Bacon in the movie Footloose, he won gratitude for the gift of dance¿and Sony discovered what the town fathers in that film learned: forbidding dancing is really, really bad for public relations.
The DMCA and Robodogs
Image: Courtesy of AiboPet
The intensity with which Aibo owners reacted produced what AiboPet calls "a pretty major shift" in Sony's position. By November 23rd, Sony and AiboPet had reached an understanding that allowed the hacker to repost on his Web site most of the programs that Sony initially asked him to remove. "The reaction had a major influence," AiboPet says, "or at least I believe it did." Sony spokespeople have refused to comment on the dispute beyond a carefully worded statement thanking Aibo enthusiasts and pointing out that they were only trying to protect their copyright. Sony and AiboPet continue to work out the ground rules of their relationship, but things are going smoothly. The boycott by Aibo lovers ended.