Digicam for $11? - Ritz Dakota hacked (UPDATED)|
(Friday, November 14, 2003 - 16:08 EST)
News comes to us from Slashdot.org, the self-billed "place to get nerd-oriented news", of an interesting development that threatens to damage the business model of a US camera chain - and potentially to open a can of worms regarding the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.
Back in July, we first told readers about the Ritz Dakota Digital camera - billed as a "single use" camera because it is designed to be offloaded by Ritz and then rented to another customer. Since then, we'd been aware of efforts by users to hack into the cameras, allowing them to access their photos without Ritz's assistance.
Those efforts, according to Slashdot's article, have culminated in software and directions allowing Windows, Macintosh and Linux users to quickly extract their images over a standard USB connection (links to the software can be found in the Slashdot article).A cable must be made by altering a couple of existing cables or making a new one from scratch, so a little know-how with a soldering iron is necessary.
The image quality of the camera is, frankly, rather dubious - but then that's to be expected, and it certainly surpasses anything else available for $11. This has to be one of the cheapest options around for a digital camera, - and even if the image quality isn't acceptable, the geeks amongst us will want to try the hack just to prove it works.
Where this really gets interesting though is in considering the potential implications for Ritz and its customers. Ritz's business model for the Dakota Digital revolves around two things - forcing the customer to return to Ritz and pay another $11 developing charge (on top of the $11 price of the camera itself) to get their pictures, and reusing the cameras numerous times to generate further revenue from other customers.
By offloading your own images, Ritz loses the first half of that revenue stream - you no longer have any incentive to go to them for prints and a CD of your images. Probably more worrisome for the company, though, you also now have no reason to return the camera. It runs on AA batteries, and you can hence reuse it as often as you like... That potentially loses Ritz a lot more money - $22 per customer who would have been able to use the camera after you. Depending on how many times the camera can be reused, the cost in lost revenues could easily be in the triple digits for each camera that is hacked.
It is quite possible that Ritz had expected this occurrence, and has accounted for it in pricing the cameras and development fees - writing off the loss as a cost of the "digital disposable" business. It is equally possible - and perhaps more likely - that the company failed to adequately consider the possibility. Ritz doesn't actually make the camera - it is sourced from San Francisco-based Pure Digital Technologies - and Ritz may have believed (or been advised by Pure Digital) that the use of a proprietary connector and lack of standard software to offload images would prevent customers from getting to the images themselves.
If the latter is closer to the truth, Ritz does have a potential avenue to attempt to close the loophole - the hopelessly open-ended "Digital Millennium Copyright Act". If you're not familiar with the DMCA, it is designed to prevent "circumvention of copyright protection systems". The title sounds harmless enough, but depending on how you read the law, it could conceivably be used to prevent you circumventing systems that prevent you accessing photos to which you own the copyright.
Suing under the DMCA would seem inadvisable to us, as it would likely result in a wave of unfavorable reports in the media - hence losing potential future customers for Ritz. There's also no guarantee that such a challenge would hold water anyway, as demonstrated by one past DMCA case. A manufacturer of garage door openers sued and lost under the DMCA, attempting to prevent another company from selling remote control units compatible with its openers. Still, were Ritz to sue and win it could shut down the sites telling customers how to access their photos, and providing the necessary software.
So - could Ritz have come up with a different model for a single-use digital camera that would have sidestepped this entire issue? Resoundingly, yes. Instead of appearing to "sell" the cameras, Ritz could make it more clear that they are in fact being rented - and hence must be returned. One way of doing so being to deduct a security deposit for the value of the camera, which is refunded when the camera is returned. The company could also incorporate the processing fee into the initial purchase price - meaning customers would no longer have any incentive to offload their own images, since they'd already paid Ritz to do so.
Making these changes would swiftly wipe out the lost cameras and processing revenues, but it would have a downside too. The higher upfront costs - particularly if a security deposit were required - would undoubtedly put off some potential customers. At the end of the day, "digital disposables" are proving to be a very tricky business, and one that has a very debatable future.
UPDATED 2003-11-18 15:43ET: An anonymous IR reader wrote in to point out that the Ritz Dakota Digital looks a lot like a rebadged and restyled variant of the Primax C-11, but with two changes. The SmartMedia memory card slot has been removed and replaced by built-in memory, and whatever connectivity the C-11 has (if any) has been replaced by a proprietary connector in an attempt to prevent customers from offloading images themselves - although obviously that has not been terribly successful. We don't have access to detailed specifications for the C-11, but the few specs listed on Primax's site are similar to those of the Dakota Digital.