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Kyle Wiens

A View from Kyle Wiens

How Copyright Law Stifles Your Right to Tinker with Tech

The CEO of the gadget-repair site iFixit explains why tech groups are suing the government over copyright rules.

  • July 26, 2016

Last week, Andrew “Bunnie” Huang—a benevolent hacker and inventor—announced that he was teaming up with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to sue the U.S. government. Why? He believes the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is unconstitutional; that the law hinders free speech, stifles creative expression, and puts a damper on progress.

All I can say is … it’s about damn time.

The DMCA may have “digital” and “millennium” in its name, but it’s not in step with the way modern technology actually works. I found that out firsthand when a farmer friend asked me to help fix his tractor. It was a lot harder than I thought, but for legal rather than technical reasons. One obstacle led to another, and last year we ended up filing a petition asking the U.S. Copyright Office to allow farmers to repair their tractors.

I’m not an intellectual property lawyer. I’m a repairman and I run an online community called iFixit that teaches other people how fix things, too. Copyright law should have almost nothing to do with my life. But it does, thanks to the DMCA. Corporations manipulate the law to criminalize activities that have absolutely nothing to do with copyright, including repair.

Passed nearly two decades ago, the DMCA governs the space where traditional copyright and modern technology collide. Back in 1998, Congress’s goal was to prevent scary hacker-types on that new-fangled Internet thing from mainlining pirated movies directly into their eyeballs. So lawmakers wrote an anti-circumvention clause (Section 1201) into the new law, which prohibits users from breaking the digital locks—like DRM or encryption—that protect copyrighted content.

Of course, a lot has changed since 1998. And if the myriad, unauthorized ways to stream Game of Thrones are any indication, Section 1201 didn’t stop piracy at all. What it did do was give manufacturers another legally ironclad layer of control over their products.

Just like movies and music, software is copyrightable. That’s where the DMCA really hits the fan, because software is in almost every modern product we make, from Barbie dolls to calculators, motorcycles to tractors. If a company wants to stop a curious owner from meddling with the code, reverse-engineering the programming, or making any modifications to the system, then they can just slap a digital lock on the product. Break that digital lock—for any reason, even if you just want to back up or repair something you own—and you’re a cybercriminal.

So back to my story. This friend, a California-based strawberry farmer, approached me a few years ago because he was having trouble repairing some of his new farm equipment. Every time a machine broke, he had to fly out a manufacturer-authorized repair technician who could access the proprietary diagnostic software. Fixing the equipment locally would have required my friend to hack his own tractor, which is against the law.

That didn’t sit well with me. So I recruited a legal clinic from the University of Southern California to help me tell the Copyright Office that farmers should be able to repair their tractors on their own. It took nearly a year of back and forth, but eventually the Copyright Office decided that farmers and car owners could indeed break digital locks and access the code in their vehicles for the purpose of repair.

That was a victory. But it’s not enough. This stuff has implications beyond tractors and cars.

Every day, thousands of products are released onto the market. More and more of them come equipped with embedded software. Inevitably, some of them are going to break and people will need to fix them. Like this guy, who needed to fix a bad microphone on his wife’s speech therapy system. Or these people, who are trying to replace the DVD drives on their Xboxes. Or these owners of glitchy Samsung smart fridges. Under Section 1201, repairs that require access to a product’s programming could be against the law.

My company, iFixit, runs into these problems, too. We sell Xbox repair parts, but we have to unnecessarily bundle replacement drives and main boards together in pairs because they’re cryptographically linked. Using a technique developed by Bunnie, we could sell them individually and halve the repair cost, but last year the Copyright Office rejected our request to legalize the practice.

Repair is not crime. No one should have to ask the Copyright Office for permission to fix their stuff. No one should be threatened with a lawsuit for looking at code inside something that belongs to them. And no one should risk jail time because they have the audacity to fix a tractor without the manufacturer’s blessing.

If you do, then your tractor isn’t the only thing that’s broken. America’s copyright laws are broken, too. And it’s about damn time someone tried to fix them. Bunnie might not be the hero that our dysfunctional copyright system deserves, but he’s certainly the hero we need. And the fight of his life just started up.

Kyle Wiens is the CEO of iFixit, the free repair manual. He’s dedicated his life to defeating the second law of thermodynamics, a battle fought in the courtroom as often as in the workshop. The right-to-repair campaign has, so far, successfully legalized cell phone unlocking and tractor repair.

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