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'Mod chip' design goes open source

An Australian company selling hacker tools for the Xbox video-game console releases its "mod chip" design as an open-source item.

An Australian company that manufactures and sells a "mod chip" for Microsoft's Xbox video-game console has released the design for the hacking tool under an open-source license.

Hibana, which makes the DualMod chip and sells it via the AussieChip Web site, began offering a downloadable version of the chip design last week to anyone who agrees to a license that incorporates standard open-source provisions.

Mod chips are gray-market add-ons that, once soldered onto the main circuit board of a video-game console, bypass security systems in the machines. The chips allow hackers to run homemade software and import games on a console, along with enabling playback of illegally copied game discs.

Mod chips have been an irritant for game companies for years, but Microsoft has been particularly vigilant in fighting the devices. The company has changed the configuration of the Xbox, tweaked the Xbox Live online service, and cooperated in court with rival console makers to thwart mod chips.

Hibana CEO Grant Sparks, known to the Xbox mod community as "Donatus," said he decided to freely offer the design for the DualMod chip in hopes of inspiring innovation. While ordinary hackers won't be able to do much with the design, anyone with the money and expertise to access a semiconductor fabrication plant could use the design as the basis for a better mod chip.

"We think that the market is served best when information is allowed to flow freely to all participants and when innovation is encouraged rather than prosecuted to protect corporate profits," Sparks wrote in an e-mail. "The Xbox is a children's toy, and the idea that the law should be used to stop people from playing with it in any way they want to is, to us, simply ridiculous."

Sparks added that the open-source model also ensures some sort of life for the DualMod chip, should he run into the type of legal tussles that have snared other mod chip makers.

"If it came to a legal confrontation, I don't know if our decision to open source the mod chips would be of any direct benefit, but it sure would help to illustrate the lunacy of the litigation," he said. "You can't un-ring a bell. The designs are out there now and have been mirrored on countless Web sites already."