U.S. Copyright office deals Right to Repair advocates a big win

In a victory for Right to Repair advocates, Librarian of Congress Carla D. Hayden recently approved the proposed changes to the copyright law that applies to smartphones, voice-assisted home devices, cars, and tractors.

According to Motherboard, the changes recommended by the U.S. Copyright Office “give consumers and independent repair experts wide latitude to legally hack embedded software on their devices in order to repair or maintain them.” Specifically, the new law allows consumers to break digital rights management (DRM) of “legally acquired” devices for the “maintenance” and “repair” of that device.

Time to throw a victory party, right? Celebrate shadetree mechanic work and cheer for not having to shell out to some dealership? Not just yet.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which went into effect in 2000, made it “unlawful to circumvent technological measures used to prevent unauthorized access to copyrighted works.” That meant, for instance, that if the electronics in your car or tractor failed, you had no choice (legally) but to go to the dealership for repairs. (Farm equipment received an exemption to the law in 2015.)

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Faced with losing that all but guaranteed business, don’t expect manufacturers and dealerships to simply accept these changes without pushback. Motherboard warns that there are hurdles ahead. For example, Apple’s MacBook Pro has a built-in kill switch that prevents new devices from functioning if they are repaired by anyone who is not authorized by Apple to do so. “It uses embedded software to do this,” Jason Koebler writes, “by requiring the computer to connect to Apple’s servers in order to verify that a repair is authorized.” So while it is now legal to “jailbreak” the software, completing the task is a different story.

Nathan Proctor, director of consumer rights group U.S. PIRG’s Campaign for the Right to Repair, told Motherboard: “Getting an exemption to reset the device is pretty different from having access to the firmware to actually do that.”

It also seems likely that manufacturers will further limit access to some parts and tools, or perhaps raise prices to recoup some of that lost business.

“We just want to fix our stuff,” Proctor says. But it may not be so easy, in the end.

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