It stands to reason that if you own something, you should be able to tear it apart, tinker with it, and (hopefully) repair it. However, the great importance ascribed to copyright in US law makes that difficult. However, new copyright exemptions have gone into effect today that could help promote the right-to-repair movement, but hardware manufacturers still don’t have to make it easy on you.
This new exemptions are part of the regular rule-making process at the US Copyright Office. Every three years, the office seeks recommendations for exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This legislation is what makes it illegal to circumvent any security measure that controls access to a copyrighted work. Over the years, the so-called Section 1201 exemptions have made it legal to carrier unlock your cell phone or backup abandoned video games for archival purposes. It’s up to the Librarian of Congress to sign off on these exemptions every three years, and Gizmodo reports the latest round is more expansive than usual.
The changes take effect today (10/28), and they include recommendations from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, iFixit, and others. The gist is that the copyright office is not picking and choosing which devices are eligible for a 1201 exemption and which aren’t. As of today, you are allowed to hack around with any consumer product that is controlled by software. That covers a huge swath of devices including phones, game consoles, and laptops.
It’s not a complete free-for-all, though. There are some unexpected limitations, and some that make sense given the context. Most importantly, you can only take advantage of the exemption if your goal is “diagnosis, maintenance, and repair.” If you’re looking to modify a product on a whim, these changes won’t help you avoid legal consequences. There’s also a very narrow allowance for game consoles. Consumers are only allowed to circumvent copyright on consoles to repair the optical drive, which not all machines even have anymore. After the fix, you are also required to restore copyright protection features. Good luck enforcing that one, copyright cops.
Farmers who were hoping for help in their battle with John Deere were disappointed. After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment, farmers feel they should be able to repair them without going through John Deere. However, the company refuses to give them access to the firmware, parts, and diagnostic tools they would need, and the 1201 exemptions don’t open things up. The new exemptions focus entirely on consumer devices. We’re also left with the age-old issue of manufacturer control. While it’s no longer illegal to undertake your own repairs on many devices, no one can make the original manufacturer sell you official parts. They can also design products in such a way that bypassing the protections is even more onerous. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.
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