Your shiny new phone or laptop will not remain new forever, and the manufacturer may try to make you go through its authorized agents for repair and maintenance. That can be expensive, and sometimes not even possible after a company decides your device is too old. Now, you have another option as the US government just decided that hacking DRM to repair and maintain your electronics is perfectly legal.
This decision is a major win for “right to repair” advocates, who believe that companies should not be able to hide behind copyright law to prevent consumers from fixing their own stuff. Radical, I know. Going forward, you can legally circumvent DRM on devices like smartphones, smart home appliances, and tractors to keep them working. The exemption requires that you have “lawfully acquired” the device in question before you crack the DRM, though.
You can thank the Librarian of Congress for this move, which was part of a copyright exemption review that happens every three years. The anti-circumvention provisions in section 1201 of US copyright law prohibit consumers from manipulating “technological measure that effectively controls access,” which we all know as digital right management (DRM). In 2015, the Librarian of Congress decided that you could hack DRM to repair a tractor, but the 2018 update expands consumer rights considerably. It includes both “maintenance” and “repair,” and covers many more products.
With this rule in place, you could legally disable firmware integrity checks to install unofficial software on a computer, phone, or other electronics. The same goes for software that blocks third-party parts from working in your devices. Just because this is legal doesn’t mean companies have to help you do it. It’s still perfectly legal for a company to implement DRM, and they can even try to make it more robust and difficult to circumvent. A firm may also change hardware and software designs in hopes of stymying repair attempts. Apple notably removed a recovery port from its MacBook Pros, making them harder to fix.
If your repair requires replacement parts, you might be out of luck as well. The updated copyright rules don’t require that companies make replacement parts available, and some have a history of going after independent repair shops that attempt to import gray market components.
Right to repair advocates are still pursuing state-level legislation that would force manufacturers to make DRM easier to circumvent. For the time being, the copyright exemption will at least unleash developers and engineers to do what they can to keep your electronics working.
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