Consumer Rights

DRM Kitty Litter: The Only Thing Stupider Than DRM Coffee

Image: CC NC-BY-SA by Flickr user Sean Bonner

Earlier this year, we told you about Keurig’s attempt to quash off-brand coffee by integrating DRM into its newest model of brewing machine. At the time, we thought that coffee barons locking their customers into name-brand coffee pods was the most boneheaded deployment of DRM we’d ever seen.

Turns out, we were wrong.

You know what else features DRM these days? Kitty litter. Welcome to the future, people. Now, even your cat’s crap comes with a steaming side of corporate crap.

Last week, cat-lover and programmer Jorge Lopez detailed his experience with the CatGenie—an automatic, self-cleaning cat litter box. As Lopez describes it, the CatGenie is “the Rolls Royce of cat litter boxes”—all he has to do is replace the CatGenie SaniSolution SmartCartridge on cue, and the CatGenie disposes of foul-smelling cat turds on its own.

Lopez was enjoying the hands-off, CatGenie high life—that is, until he ran out of SaniSolution. In a pinch, he decided to refill the cartridge with water until his new order of CatGenie-branded cartridges arrived in the mail. He popped the refilled cartridge back into the litter box, fully expecting the cleaning mechanism to whirl back to life.

It didn’t.

“… [The machine] knew this wasn’t its SaniSolution. Somehow it knew,” Lopez writes on Medium. “I wasn’t able to even force it to run without the solution. I did some Googling, and I found that the ‘Smart’ in SmartCartridge is that it has an RFID chip inside of it to keep track of how much solution it has, and once it runs out, well, you can’t refill it. I honestly did not believe this and tore one of the cartridges apart, and there it was, looking back at me, a tiny chip holding up its little metal finger.”

The CatGenie, which is just DRM kitty litter
DRM in a cat crapper? How purrrrr-fectly evil. Image by Jorge Lopez.

Adding insult to injury, Lopez discovered online that users report their CatGenies actually run better on water than on cleaning solution—that is, after jailbreaking the crap palace. The switch would save Lopez $350 each year. But Lopez doesn’t get to make a decision about what cleaning solution to use, because the fat cats of Big Kitty Litter have already made it for him. And like a cat crap bouncer, DRM enforces that decision on users.

“This made me realize that I don’t actually own a CatGenie, I’m renting it,” says Lopez. “Though I paid for it, I have to pay per use yet I’m still responsible for all repairs until it craps out and I have to get another one. A tad disheartening.”

Disheartening, indeed. And just a little bit infuriating. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: If you bought it, you should own it. That means you should be able to tweak it, modify it, and use whatever kitty litter or coffee beans you’d like. Because it’s yours.

The problem: manufacturers usually don’t feel the same way. And as computers turn up in more and more of the devices that we use every day, you can expect more DRM and more encryption integrated into the stuff you think you own.

Take heart, though: if there’s one upside to the growing DRM-debacle, it’s that people are endlessly resourceful. Every time manufacturers throw up a DRM wall, consumers find a way to tear it back down. When Keurig deployed DRM in coffeemakers, industrious users found a way to pick the digital handcuffs with the clever application of scotch tape. And users have found a way to hack around the limitations of the CatGenie, too—“custom firmware CatGenius and CartridgeGenius which allows you to use whatever solution you want,” Lopez explains.

But we shouldn’t have to use a clever circumvention to get our kitty potties to work the way we want. This is yet another gross corporate abuse of DRM monopoly building. And it’s time we flush it.