When Piracy Literally Saves Lives

from the ip-madness dept

Early on in the pandemic we wrote about how some makers of medical equipment, such as ventilators, were making it difficult to impossible to let hospitals fix their own ventilators. Many have used software locks — DRM — and refuse to give the information necessary to keep those machines online.

And thus, it was only inevitable that piracy would step in to fill the void. Vice has the incredible story of a rapidly growing grey market for both hacked hardware and software to keep ventilators running:

In the case of the PB840, a ventilator popularized about 20 years ago and in use ever since, a functional monitor swapped from a machine with a broken breathing unit to one with a broken monitor but a functioning breathing unit won?t work if the software isn?t synced. And so William uses the homemade dongle and Medtronic software shared with him by the Polish hacker to sync everything and repair the ventilator. Medtronic makes a similar dongle, but doesn?t sell it to the general public or independent repair professionals. It?s only available to people authorized by the company to do repairs.

This is yet another reason why the right to repair is so key. It is not, just about people getting to modify things they bought (which still should be a core component of ownership) and it’s not just about competition, rather than lock-in from the original manufacturer: sometimes this is about literally saving lives. And it’s interesting to see that the “piracy” effort here is basically mimicking previous right to repair fights as well:

The Polish hacker told Motherboard that technicians will take a manufacturer?s repair class in the United States, get the required software, then share it widely through Europe. ?It?s officially prohibited to share the software,? they said, speaking of the PB840 software. ?But if you know someone, you can just copy it and they cannot track it.?

This grey-market, international supply chain is essentially identical to one used by farmers to repair John Deere tractors without the company?s authorization and has emerged because of the same need to fix a device without a manufacturer’s permission.

But, really, in the midst of the pandemic, it’s pretty ridiculous that we’re relying on piracy to survive. And yet, it’s leading to crazy situations like this one:

Ryan Zamudio, a military veteran who owns Veritas Biomedical, a company that repairs ventilators in rural California, said that while he and his staff are authorized to work on some manufacturers? ventilators, he has to turn to internet forums, word-of-mouth trading, or hope he gets a friendly person on the phone at a manufacturer to get software or a repair manual in order to be able to work on others.

?Service technicians are a community of their own. Sometimes you?ll call someone who works for a manufacturer and they sort of know what you?re facing, so they?ll send you a manual or a link to download the software. They?ll say ?officially this never happened, and you didn?t get this from me,’? he said. Biomedical technicians also trade software among friends they meet through biomedical society trade groups and forums such as TechNation, 24×7 Magazine and DOTMed. In recent weeks, iFixit has also compiled a huge compendium of repair manuals for ventilators.

There’s a lot more in the original article as well — including a very weak defense of the practice of locking up devices and saying only “certified” repair people can fix things (basically saying they don’t want the liability if something goes wrong). However, that’s ridiculous, especially in the middle of a pandemic. They’d rather let people die than possibly face a bit of liability? And that risk is pretty minimal. People aren’t going to blame the device maker in these situations. It’s usually the hospital/medical staff that takes on the liability, rather than the device maker.

And, to be clear, this article is in no way a “defense” of piracy. Indeed, it’s yet another example of why piracy is only an example of a failure in the marketplace thanks to overly aggressive laws. If we had sane laws regarding repairing/modifying things you owned, this wouldn’t even be an issue. The only reason “piracy” is necessary here is because these companies have expanded and twisted copyright law to block people from actually being able to repair their own devices. And, frankly, I’d argue that’s a much bigger attack on “property rights” than any attempt to fix copyright law would ever be.

Filed Under: , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “When Piracy Literally Saves Lives”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
16 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Sometimes there are reasons to lock down a device

Or at least part of on. For instance, the FCC doesn’t allow user modification of software modems, so that they can’t be made to interfere with other radio devices nearby. One can argue that the correct approach would be allow it but then sanction anyone who causes harm. The counter would be that the harm may be lives lost if the interference caused a medical device to fail or a plane to crash. There is certainly room for debate here.

Of course, most cases are simply a case of the manufacturer wanting to control the user for no good reason, most often to extort extra money and avoid competition. I find no supportable argument in favour of such outright laziness and unwillingness to do a good job, and cases where the desire for control is for control itself without any goal in mind I find particularly disgusting.

As for liability, surely simply openly invalidating any warranties, stated or implied, if the device is moded would be enough in any sane world. Given the world we live in, perhaps a rider to a "right to repair" law, shielding a manufacturer if they do revoke warranties in the case of moded equipment would be appropriate. If they are worried about liability, an ethical company would at least couple a refusal to help with a call for a law protecting them if they did allow it.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
z! (profile) says:

Re: Sometimes there are reasons to lock down a device

The warranty angle only works while it runs- a 10 year old machine isn’t going to be covered anyway. A better approach might be to shield the manufacturer only if the "repair" can be independently shown to have caused the tort.

Or… the manufacturers could just support their products at a reasonable cost and under reasonable conditions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Sometimes there are reasons to lock down a device

A better approach might be to shield the manufacturer only if the "repair" can be independently shown to have caused the tort.

That sounds suspicously like the rules of the Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act, except that it shields consumers rather than manufacturers (and does nothing about manufacturers that make stuff intentionally difficult to repair, via lockdowns or otherwise).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Sometimes there are reasons to lock down a device

For instance, the FCC doesn’t allow user modification of software modems, so that they can’t be made to interfere with other radio devices nearby

That law is more complex, requiring that manufacturers take action to prevent the user from making modifications. Like all such laws, it only benefits a monopolist or cartel, by outlawing competition.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Sometimes there are reasons to lock down a device

That law is more complex, requiring that manufacturers take action to prevent the user from making modifications.

Yet more complexity: people with the right amateur radio licenses are allowed to modify the radios. The lockdown means they need to get into some gray-market stuff to do it.

ECA (profile) says:

More to say,

What is there to say.
Hacking and learning go hand in hand.
Learning the basics at home while younger has led to many people getting jobs.
Its like going to the library to find a book, and its never been written, or allowed to be given out, so you go home and write it yourself. Then someone Sues you for writing it.

Its a strange idea, that I had to Downgrade a few things I learned, and went to school on, JUST TO GET A JOB.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

You... wanna try that again?

There’s a lot more in the original article as well — including a very weak defense of the practice of locking up devices and saying only "certified" repair people can fix things (basically saying they don’t want the liability if something goes wrong).

That’s not a ‘weak’ defense it’s a non-existent one. Barring a judge that recently took a head-first trip down a flight of stairs ‘the device was working correctly when we sold it, an unlicensed person modified it without our knowledge or consent and it failed to work properly afterwards’ should be all that’s needed to get any lawsuit tossed, not to mention I would be incredibly surprised if the documentation included in a medical device didn’t include a clause specifically saying that if you meddle with the device any warranty is void, and the results are entirely on your head.

Anonymous Coward says:

Devil's advocate

The liability reason is not a weak excuse. Liability is one of the nuclear weapons used by lawyers, aided and abetted by maliciously and willfully ignorant judges and a willfully, ignorant population.

The population want to imagine that they will be the recipient of a multi-million dollar settlement, thus, want and give big judgments. Unfortunately there are too few people who see the need for balance.

The judiciary are proud, vain and morally arrogant. They are addicted to power and will seek to preserve their power. Unfortunately there are too few judges who seen the need for balance. The villainy of the judiciary is easiest seen in technology, where most judges assert they don’t need to understand the technology of the cases before them, THEY KNOW BETTER, aka pride, vanity, and moral arrogance.

As for lawyers, well, do an internet search on the phrase "professional courtesy". The bar associations have become de-facto mob gangs of lawyers (IMHO). They are certainly going to use "law suit nukes" if it is profitable. Unfortunately, there are so few ethical lawyers that it is difficult to see the law as being anything other than a bloody bludgeon.

The only good thing that can be foreseen coming out of this situation is that the worthless population, judges, lawyers and legislators are as likely to die from lack of working medical equipment as the rest of us.

Slightly off topic, I put the case to you that:

The large response to Covid-19 (which requires these ventilators) is significantly driven by the likelihood of lawyers, judges and legislators are at least as susceptible to the disease as the rest of us. Further, in both China and the U. S. there is a significant number of the VIP crowd who are hosting someone else’s organs (obtaining them one way or another). These people are very vulnerable and very afraid. Thus, we see the huge response.

Question: Would it be a benefit or liability to society (any society) if the VIP crowd, as well as the ignorant and malicious crowd were thinned a bit by Covid-19?

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Tech & COVID is a new project by Techdirt, with sponsorship from

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Loading...
Older Stuff
12:00 How Smart Software And AI Helped Networks Thrive For Consumers During The Pandemic (40)
12:10 Chinese Government Sentences Journalist To Four Years In Jail For Reporting On The Spread Of The Coronavirus (15)
15:38 Instructors And School Administrators Are Somehow Managing To Make Intrusive Testing Spyware Even Worse (50)
09:33 WHO Is Blocking Commenters From Even Mentioning Taiwan On Its Facebook Page (26)
20:03 Not Just America: CEO Of Esports Org In India Says COVID-19 Resulted In Explosive Growth (9)
12:00 How To Fix Online Education In The Covid-19 Era (6)
15:48 COVID-19 Is Driving The Uptake Of Chess -- And Of Surveillance Tools To Stop Online Players Cheating (20)
20:44 How Linus Torvalds Invented Today's Work From Home Paradigm In 1991 (38)
19:38 Esports March On: Nike Jumps In With Glitzy Ad While Forbes Ponders If Esports Will Be Our New Pastime (6)
06:37 As COVID Highlights U.S. Broadband Failures, State Bans On Community Broadband Look Dumber Than Ever (24)
03:21 US Patent Boss Says No Evidence Of Patents Holding Back COVID Treatments, Days Before Pharma Firms Prove He's Wrong (40)
03:21 Congressional Republicans With No Strategy On Pandemic, Healthcare, Societal Problems... Have Decided That The Internet Is The Real Problem (35)
05:57 Cord Cutting Has Utterly Exploded During the Covid Crisis (80)
09:42 Collaboration Houses: How Technology & A Pandemic Have Created Entirely New Ways To Go To College (16)
13:30 Techdirt Podcast Episode 253: Post-Pandemic Tech (5)
13:34 Has The Pandemic Shown That The Techlash Was Nonsense? (12)
19:54 England's Exam Fiasco Shows How Not To Apply Algorithms To Complex Problems With Massive Social Impact (32)
10:51 AMC Theaters: Risk Death And Disability To Watch Movie Reruns For 15 Cents! (46)
06:33 Congress To Consider National Right To Repair Law For First Time (42)
13:26 Georgia School District Inadvertently Begins Teaching Lessons In First Amendment Protections After Viral Photo (77)
13:30 Techdirt Podcast Episode 250: Modeling The Pandemic (5)
06:20 It Only Took A Massive Pandemic For Hollywood To Ease Off Stupid, Dated Movie Release Windows (14)
19:40 Tech And COVID-19: Stop Using Video Game Graphics For Fake Crowds, Fox (24)
13:40 How Technology And The Pandemic Are Bringing People Closer Together, Even As We're Physically Apart (12)
19:42 Tech And COVID-19: MLB Rolls Out Remote Cheering Function In Its MLB App (6)
19:08 R&A's The Open Golf Tournament This Year Will Be Virtual In Multiple Ways And It's Going To Be Amazing (10)
10:43 When Piracy Literally Saves Lives (16)
19:49 'The Sims' Becomes An Outlet For Would-Be Protesters Who Cannot Attend Protests (18)
15:26 Internet Archive Closing National Emergency Library Two Weeks Early, Due To Lawsuit, Despite How Useful It's Been (106)
11:07 Two Cheers For Unfiltered Information (6)
More arrow