Tesla’s ‘Irma Update’ Shows The Dangers Of Proprietary Software

By now, you know the story. Tesla magically (remotely) updated the software of its cars during Hurricane Irma:

Tesla remotely sent a free software update to some drivers across Florida over the weekend, extending the battery capacity of cars and giving extra range to those fleeing Hurricane Irma.

According to reports, the update temporarily unlocked the full-battery potential for 75-kilowatt-hour Model S sedans and Model X SUVs, adding around 30 to 40 miles to their range.

“Cars with a 75-kilowatt-hour battery pack were previously software limited to 210 miles of driving range per single charge and will now get 249 miles, the full range capacity of the battery,” the company wrote on a blog.

As is evident from this description, the software regulating battery life is ‘autonomous’ of the user; the user cannot change it, or tweak it in any way to reflect changing user needs or driving conditions (like, say, the need to drive to a distant point in order to escape a potentially life-threatening change in the weather.) In short, the software that runs on Tesla’s cars is not ‘free‘–not in the sense that you have to pay money for it, but in the sense that you cannot do what you, as the user of the software, might or might not want to do with it: like share it, copy it, modify it. If the user needs ‘help’ he or she must wait for the benevolent corporation to come to its aid.

We, as software users, are used to this state of affairs. Most of the software we use is indeed not ‘free’ in this sense: the source code is kept a trade secret and cannot be inspected to figure out how it does what it does, the binary executables are copyrighted and cannot be copied, lastly, the software’s algorithms are patented. You cannot read the code, you cannot change it to better reflect your needs, and you cannot make copies of something you ‘own’ to give it to others who might need it. As software users eventually come to realize, you don’t ‘own’ proprietary software in the traditional sense of the term, you license it for a limited period of time, subject to many constraints, some reasonable, others not.

In an interview with 3AM magazine, while talking about my book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software I had made note of some of the political implications of the way software is regulated by law. The following exchange sums up the issues at play:

3:AM: One aspect of the book that was particularly interesting to me was your vision of a world full of code, a cyborg world where ‘distinctions between human and machine evanesce’ and where ‘personal and social freedoms in this domain are precisely the freedoms granted or restricted by software.’ Can you say something about what you argued for there?

SC: I think what we were trying to get at was that it seemed the world was increasingly driven by software, which underwrote a great deal of the technology that extends us and makes our cyborg selves possible. In the past, our cyborg selves were constructed by things like eyeglasses, pencils, abacuses and the like—today, by smartphones, wearable computers, tablets and other devices like them. These are all driven by software. So our extended mind, our extended self, is very likely to be largely a computational device. Who controls that software? Who writes it? Who can modify it? Look at us today, tethered to our machines, unable to function without them, using software written by someone else. How free can we be if we don’t have some very basic control over this technology? If the people who write the software are the ones who have exclusive control over it, then I think we are giving up some measure of freedom in this cyborg society. Remember that we can enforce all sorts of social control over people by writing it into the machines that they use for all sorts of things. Perhaps our machines of tomorrow will come with porn filters embedded in the code that we cannot remove; perhaps with code in the browsers that mark off portions of the Net as forbidden territory, perhaps our reading devices will not let us read certain books, perhaps our smartphones will not let us call certain numbers, perhaps prosthetic devices will not function in ‘no-go zones’, perhaps the self-driving cars of tomorrow will not let us drive faster than a certain speed; the control possibilities are endless. The more technologized we become and the more control we hand over to those who can change the innards of the machines, the less free we are. What are we to do? Just comply? This all sounds very sci-fi, but then, so would most of contemporary computing to folks fifty years ago. We need to be in charge of the machines that we use, that are our extensions.

We, in short, should be able to hack ourselves.

Tesla’s users were not free during Irma; they were at the mercy of the company, which in this case, came to their aid. Other users, of other technologies, might not be so fortunate; they might not be the masters of their destiny.

Video Game ‘Cloning’: What Is It Good For?

Cloning of video games is a Bad Thing. Or so sayeth Brian X. Chen and some video game developers (New York Times, March 12th, ” For Creators of Games, A Faint Line on Cloning”). Roughly, the thesis advanced is: ‘cloning’ can be destructive of developer motivation and the video game market, and thus seems to require legal intervention (by the application of patenting protections). I want to raise some questions that I hope will complicate the picture Chen provides us of innovation and its relationship to its legal regulation.

So,

In any commercialized art form, be it movies, literature or fashion, the creators often tread a fine line between inspiration and shameless copying. Some small video game makers say that line seems to have all but disappeared….“When another company takes inspiration from the game and they try to make a different game out of it, that’s when getting imitated turns into a compliment,” said Rami Ismail, a co-founder of Vlambeer. “Getting cloned is like getting punched in the face. It’s like a robbery.” Demoralized, Vlambeer stopped development of Ridiculous Fishing for several months. “It was kind of a motivation black hole,” said Jan Willem Nijman, another founder. “It almost destroyed Vlambeer.”

So, copying is ‘shameless’; the imitated seems to think it is both a ‘compliment’ and ‘like getting punched in the face’ and like ‘robbery;’ it can act as demotivator. Ismail’s statement starts by noting ‘inspiration’ and the creation of ‘different games’, which would seem to be a good thing (for game players at least). But something goes wrong: even though a new game has been created, it has employed ‘cloning’, the copying of  “the soul of a game — its gameplay mechanics, design, characters and storyline — “. And this has demotivated the folks at Vlambeer.

This story raises questions well worth pursuing. What did Vlambeer do? Did it make another game? Did the presence of the new, ‘cloned’ game force them into other innovative avenues of development, rather than just working on a previously explored artistic niche? Did the cloning prevent Vlambeer from staying safely and staidly on the same beaten track? What brought Vlambeer back to working on games? What do they work on now and how? More generally, is it the case that those developers whose games have been ‘cloned’ start working on another game or do they exit the development market? Does cloning produce an arms race with games developers innovating furiously to maintain a cutting edge?

Other questions suggest themselves. Did consumers get more games out of this episode of cloning? Were the ‘cloned’ versions of the game better in any regard? Even if the “gameplay mechanics, characters and storyline” are ‘cloned’ what does it mean to say the ‘design’ was cloned? Was the interface of the cloned version identical, or did the interface work ‘better’ in some interesting dimension? For instance, are any of the ‘cloned’ games faster? Do they load quicker? Do game players indicate their preferences for these new games in any way?

After not raising these questions, Chen turns to possible legal protections and regimes:

One reason that cloning is so frequent in the game industry is that there is no easy way to protect a game. A piece of published writing or a photograph can be copyrighted, but not the mechanics of a game. Small game makers could seek patents protecting software design, but they generally shy away from this because acquiring a patent can be both time-consuming and relatively expensive, said Ellisen Shelton Turner, an intellectual property lawyer at Irell & Manella in Los Angeles.

In addition, because games so often draw inspirations from previous works, many game creators believe that patent protections could stifle creativity in future games, Mr. Turner said. “A lot of them are anti-patents,” he said. “And only in hindsight do they think patents are the proper thing to do when someone has stolen their idea.”

But what are the ‘mechanics’ of a game and why are they kinds of things that could be copyrighted? Turner claims that developers shy away from acquiring patents because of the difficulties of the process but then in the next sentence puts it down to their acknowledgment of the creativity-stifling potential of patent protection. Those same developers might know that their development has drawn freely on the creative output of other developers and that seeking patent protections might be damaging to the ecology of the game development world; developers might be more cognizant of this ecology and its particular constraints, than say, corporate ‘intellectual property’ lawyers.  The belated self-knowledge that Turner ascribes to game developers might rather be their acknowledgment of the particular contours of their development community: that their decision to not seek patents  comes with a price attached while contributing to very particular freedoms enjoyed by game developers.

Finally, the central claim, that cloning results in bad outcomes:

The founders of Vlambeer, the maker of Radical Fishing, said they disagreed that cloning was good for consumers. They said cloning would make it more difficult for small companies to take risks on new ideas, but easy for big companies to succeed by rehashing old ideas. As a result, all new games could look extremely alike and unoriginal.

“If we go into that sort of spiral we’ll end up in a place where there’s only cloners, and there’s a limited amount of creativity happening,” Mr. Ismail said. “That’s the biggest horror scenario.”

This ‘horror scenario’ seems overstated. First, in light of the questions raised above. Second, because, peculiarly, in the scenario envisaged, game players appear to have no agency, no discrimination. They do not grant any game-maker first-mover advantage, they seem not to select between games, they mindlessly take on clones just because they are similar to extant games.

‘Cloning’ suggests the creation of identical copies; but the situation at hand deals with new games that incorporate central features of the older game. This fact, and the nature of the game development process, which draws on a ‘commons’ of code, algorithmic techniques, and a grab-bag of tricks and solutions to game development problems, considerably complicates the picture of the game development world and its possible legal regulation that emerges from Chen’s article.