Sony Dogs Aibo Enthusiast's Site

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Sony Corp. is using a controversial U.S. law aimed at protecting intellectual property to pull the plug on a Web site that helps owners of Aibo, Sony's popular and pricey robotic pet, teach their electronic dogs new tricks.

Aibo owners are outraged, and hundreds have vowed to stop buying Sony products altogether until the company backs off. Sony has sold more than 100,000 Aibos worldwide since 1999, at prices ranging from $800 to $3,000. The dogs have spawned a community of enthusiasts who fuss over the mechanical marvels as if they were real canines.

Last week, Sony executives sent a letter to the operator of a Web site, http://www.aibohack.com, alleging that much of the site's contents-programs and software tools that can modify the Aibo's behavior--was created and distributed in ways that violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The 1998 law was designed to combat the duplication of digitized materials, which can be easily distributed instantaneously worldwide on the Internet. Violators can face monetary damages and even prison time, depending on the nature of the violation.

In a prepared statement, Sony officials said they asked only for removal of material it considered illegal and encouraged the distribution of Aibo-related materials that they did not believe infringed the company's rights.

Sony sells a number of software kits, usually for about $150, that allow Aibo users to modify the dog's behavior. The software tools removed from the Web site are easier to use and more powerful, according to users--and are available for free.

"We do not support the development of software that is created by manipulating existing Sony Aibo-ware code, copying it and/or distributing it via the Internet," the company said. "This is a clear case of copyright infringement, something that most Aibo owners can appreciate and respectfully understand."

Critics of the DMCA say the law upsets the delicate balance between the rights of copyright holders to protect their intellectual property and the rights of everyone else to use such items to develop their own works. That has sparked increasing concern in Congress as scientists, librarians, researchers and consumer groups have voiced opposition to the law.

"On the surface, Sony appears to be using portions of the DMCA in an attempt to keep people from putting the company's product to new and interesting uses," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil rights group. "This is exactly the sort of thing we've been concerned about."

Cohn said that if Congress does not act, the courts will eventually have to repair the situation. "Sooner or later, this is going to come to a head," she said. "This is a critical societal problem. If we can no longer stand on the shoulders of giants, take a cool thing somebody has made and make it a little bit cooler, progress is stunted, perhaps irreparably."

Bob Harting, a Santa Monica potter, has programmed his three Aibos--Sparky, Agent Aibo and Aibojangles--to perform a syncopated dance routine to Madonna's "Vogue."

"It's just impossible to do this sort of thing with the Sony tools," he said, as the dogs danced to the music in his living room. "I have bought every accessory made for the Aibo, and nearly every bit of equipment in my apartment--television, VCRs, computers--is from Sony," Harting said. "But I'm not comfortable giving them more money until this is resolved."

The man behind Aibohack.com, who goes by the screen name Aibopet and asked to not be identified, removed the contested material from the site, leaving it largely empty except for links to other sites that have organized protests against Sony. He said he incorporates Sony's code into his programs but that no one is harmed. His programs give Aibo owners the ability to manipulate their robot dogs, but only if the user has a legitimate copy of Sony's software. He said that Sony benefits from his work because it generates consumer enthusiasm for Aibo. Although he's upset about being forced to take his tools off the Internet, he said he has no plans to litigate the matter.

Before Aibohack.com went down, it saw 400 to 600 visitors a day, many of whom downloaded Aibopet's tools. One of the programs, AiboScope, wirelessly transmits images from the robot's camera to a computer. Another, Disco Aibo, programs Aibo to dance when it hears a specific song. The most recent program is Brainbo, which combines voice-recognition software with a library of answers to various questions. Users can ask the robot a question, and it will pull from the database to lip sync an answer.

Aibopet said he has posted more than 1,500 comments, tips and answers to Aibosite.com in the last two years.

"I guess you could call it a hobby, but it has gotten a little out of control at times. I just enjoy programming," Aibopet said. "Looking at the last two years, I probably spent more time doing unpaid technical support for Sony than I have playing with my dog. But it's been rewarding. I've met people throughout the world."

Experts say Sony risks angering Aibo enthusiasts to the point that they might hurt sales of Aibo and related merchandise but could boost sales of its own software tools. It's a big risk said David A. Aaker, vice chairman of Prophet, a brand strategy consulting firm.

Other companies that have faced similar situations have made the opposite choice.

Lego Co., a Danish company that makes the classic plastic interlocking children's toy, introduced a computer-controlled set in 1998.

MindStorms, as the kit is called, offers users the ability to add motors and an onboard computer to control the creation's behavior. Almost as soon as the toy was introduced, enthusiasts rewrote the software to allow for more complex operation. After much consideration, Lego decided to endorse such hacking, provided that nobody turns their software into a commercial product and that Lego trademarks aren't used.

"The decision wasn't easy to make," said Lego spokesman Michael McNally. "We were obviously concerned that if this got out of hand, we could lose control of what we hold as our own. But we decided that if we made this easier for them, they'd be less inclined to change it and dilute it. In a way, we're protecting our own interests."

McNally said the decision has helped build the Lego community, but he concedes that Lego's decision was largely made to boost sales.

"We're like any other company," he said. "This was about taking the brand forward, creating a larger fan base; and what company wouldn't want to do that? It contributes to the bottom line."

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