South African police arrest man for selling jailbroken PS3s

This is the first criminal prosecution of a seller of PlayStation 3 jailbreak technology

South African police have arrested a 28-year-old Johannesburg man accused of selling jailbroken Sony PlayStation 3 machines and pirated game software.

Naseem Ebrahim Motala was charged last week with violating South Africa's Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, following an Aug. 2 raid on his home in suburban Johannesburg, according to Jacques Botha, a director with the South African Federation Against Copyright Theft (SAFACT), which investigated the case on behalf of Sony. "We have a mandate to act on behalf of Sony in South Africa," Botha said. "They fully support us."

According to Botha, Motala offered to jailbreak and install free games on PlayStation 3 consoles for R500 (US$69), advertising the services online and in ads in local newspapers. "He operated from a very good middle-class apartment in Johannesburg," he said. "He was doing quite well."

This is the first time anyone, anywhere has been prosecuted for circumventing the copy protection system of the PlayStation 3, according to Botha. But it's unlikely to be the last. His organization is working with police to prosecute other distributors of PlayStation 3 jailbreak technology. "We have some other cases that we are expecting to execute very soon," he said.

Although it is illegal to use jailbreaking software in South Africa, SAFACT is bringing cases to authorities only against people who distribute the software.

Muddying things is the fact that a jailbroken PlayStation 3 can also be used to run legitimate software that would otherwise be blocked on Sony's gaming platform, such as the Linux operating system. That's what Sony hacker George Hotz figured out how to do before Sony filed a civil lawsuit against him in the U.S., forcing him to stop distributing, and even discussing his work.

Because the Hotz case involved legitimate uses of the PlayStation 3, it isn't really comparable to the South Africa case, said Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"At the end of the day, what Sony was really after was to shut down any efforts to engage in security research with its computers," she said. "We want a world in which people were able to tinker with their machines... I think Sony was sending a very strong message: You do that and we will take you to court."

Motola is free on R10,000 bail. He is set to appear in court on Sept. 29. If convicted, he faces five years in prison.

Robert McMillan covers computer security and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Robert on Twitter at @bobmcmillan. Robert's e-mail address is robert_mcmillan@idg.com

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