Friday, August 24, 2007

Legal IT Part 2: Australia vs Corporations

Last time I mentioned how the restrictions Microsoft placed on the Xbox runs afoul of certain laws. I also stated these might not be American laws. The laws in question are of Australia, and Microsoft isn't the only company that finds its artificial lock-ins declared illegal. The biggest issue the Xbox runs into is its inability to play backup games. The thing's also region locked, which doesn't help. In Australia, only the government is permitted to impose artificial trade barriers, and locking the system to prevent playing backups counts as an artificial barrier. Australian law permits I believe two backups for personal usage.

Microsoft tried to get around this with the same "we're not selling the system, we're just selling a perpetual lease so we still own the hardware" excuse. However, this imposes an extra condition. If the company only leased the hardware, they are responsible for maintaining it. That means a lifetime warranty against any hardware failure. Microsoft refused, so the government basically said, well then, it's not a lease.

Australian law has perhaps some of the most stringent consumer rights protection I've ever heard of. If you buy something, you are free to do whatever you want so long as it's personal use. Since according to Australian law you own the 360, it's legal for you to mod it to play backups. You can go down to the local computer shop and they'll do it for you. This is just one example of how Australian law completely negates copy protection in many cases.

Most people should also be familiar with the DRM Apple uses with iTunes, locking the songs to only the iPod. Well, according to Australian law, that's illegal, so consumers are free break the DRM and recode the songs into something they can play on anything. Again, this is for personal use. Sony's PS3 actually is completely legal in Australia. It's capable of playing backups out of the box and isn't region locked. While making backups is bloody difficult, nothing stops you from playing them once you've made them. That's the key difference that sets the PS3 apart from the 360 in Australia.

The key thing in Australia is ownership. If you own something, you can do basically anything you want to it, short of commercializing it in some way or sharing it. For example, if you own a game, it's perfectly legal for you to apply a no CD crack or mod the game in some way. It's not legal for you to up the thing onto torrents or some other file sharing system.

One might think these freedoms would make Australia some kind of hacker/file sharer paradise. No. Absolutely not. While Australia has some of the best consumer rights laws I've ever seen, it also has very tough laws against piracy and hacking. First, piracy will land you a fine of about $10,000 per copy of whatever you sold. File sharing is also considered wire fraud and you'll likely get your phone lines cut if caught. As for hacking, well, that's in the same class as murder or rape, which can get you fifteen years in a federal prison, with murderers and rapists. This was instituted after someone brought down a hospital's system and the laws back then weren't sufficient to charge him with something appropriate for what the guy did. It's one reason why repair shops won't touch computers with pirated software on it.

Despite the harshness of the punishment, Australia has a very good balance between protecting users and protecting intellectual property. It forces companies to behave and limits abuses, but it also makes sure its own citizens don't take liberties with what is other people's intellectual properties. All in all, I'd say the US government has a lot to learn about protecting the end user. Too bad they always follow the bad examples.


Rees said...

Good article but I don't think we have a death penalty in Australia.

Z98 said...

Yeah, found that out after the fact. It's corrected now.