4 min read

Today, The Librarian of Congress and US Copyright Office proposed new rules which will become effective from 28 October 2018. The new rules give consumers and independent repair experts the permission to legally hack embedded software on consumer electronics like smartphones, tractors, cars, smart home appliances, and many other devices in order to repair or maintain them. This is an upgrade to the previous exemption in 2015 that allowed consumers to hack into embedded systems of tractors and farm equipment for repair/ maintenance purpose.

The ruling makes it clear that the federal government believes consumers should be legally allowed to fix the things they own. The rule states that consumers and repair professionals have the right to legally hack the firmware of “lawfully acquired” devices for the “maintenance” and “repair” of that device.

The new clause specifically targets breaking the digital rights management (DRM) and embedded software locks for “the maintenance/ repair of a device or system …. in order to make it work in accordance with its original specifications.”

DRM is a term for any technology used to control access and restrict usage of proprietary hardware and software and copyrighted work. It prevents the owner of a product from modifying, repairing, improving, distributing, and otherwise using the product in a way not authorized by the copyright holder. Until now, many countries prohibited circumventing DRM illegally. It is also illegal to create and distribute tools to bypass DRM. By applying restrictions on what the owner can and cannot do with their product, copyright holders can prevent intellectual property theft, copyright infringement, maintain artistic control, and ensure continued revenue streams.

A good analog of DRM put to use is a printer’s inkjet cartridges. Printer companies make a lot more money when you buy your ink directly from them. They come up with multiple techniques to prevent users from refilling their cartridges and putting them in their printer.

This move is considered as a big win for the ‘right to repair’ movement that aims to “protect consumers from unfair and deceptive policies that make it difficult, expensive, or impossible for you to repair the things you own.”

Most of the devices used today have software locks, which can now be legally circumvented. The catch here is as DRM becomes legal to crack, companies will make it much harder to bypass. To top it up, the federal government has not made any rules for manufacturers to make it easy to break in the DRM. As such, the right to repair movement is pursuing state-level legislation to force manufacturers to allow DRM to be circumvented for the purposes of repair.

With this ruling, some major freedoms for consumers include the following, as listed by iFixit:
  • You can now jailbreak Alexa-powered hardware, and other similar gadgets—they call these ‘Voice assistant devices.’
  • You can unlock new phones, not just used ones. This is important for recyclers that get unopened consumer returns.
  • We got a general exemption for repair of smartphones, home appliances, or home systems. This means that it’s finally legal to root and fix the Revolv smart home hubs that Google bricked when they shut down the servers. Or pretty much any other home device.
  • Repair of motorized land vehicles (including tractors) by modifying the software is now legal. Importantly, this includes access to telematic diagnostic data—which was a major point of contention.
  • It’s now legal for third-parties to perform repair on behalf of the owner. This is hugely important for the American economy, where repair jobs represent 3% of overall employment.

Nathan Proctor, head of consumer rights group US PIRG’s right to repair states that “Companies use the anti-piracy rules in copyright laws to cover things that are nowhere near copying music or video games. We just want to fix our stuff. We’re pleased with the progress being made, and ultimately we want to settle this by establishing Right to Repair.”

Kyle Wiens,  co-founder and CEO of iFixit wrote, “This ruling doesn’t make that [self-made] tooling available to the public—we’re going to need actual Right to Repair legislation for that. But it does make it legal to make your own tools. And that’s a huge step in the right direction.

This is a sweeping victory. It’s the result of years of careful, painstakingly detailed work by the community.”

While this discussion can be considered as a blow to manufacturers that use digital rights management  protections, consumers will now be able to take charge of their own devices and maintain them the way they want to.

Head over to Motherboard.vice.com for more insights on this news.

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