Dismantling The Repair Monopoly Created By The DMCA's Anti-Circumvention Rules
from the tractor-liberation-front dept
One of the biggest victories of the copyright maximalists was the successful adoption of the 1996 WIPO Copyright Treaty, implemented by the DMCA in the US, and the Copyright Directive in the EU. Its key innovation was to criminalize the circumvention of copyright protection mechanisms. That strengthens copyright enormously by introducing yet another level of legal lockdown, and thus yet another powerful weapon for copyright holders to wield against their customers. But as Techdirt has reported, the anti-circumvention laws are now being used to prevent people from exploring or modifying physical objects that they own.
The DMCA's anti-circumvention rules not only strengthen an old monopoly -- copyright -- they create a new one. Because it is forbidden to circumvent protection measures, only the original manufacturer or approved agents can legally repair a device that employs such technologies. Motherboard has an interesting profile of efforts by the wider repair industry to dismantle that new monopoly before it spreads further and becomes accepted as the norm:
Repair groups from across the industry announced that they have formed The Repair Coalition, a lobbying and advocacy group that will focus on reforming the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to preserve the “right to repair” anything from cell phones and computers to tractors, watches, refrigerators, and cars. It will also focus on passing state-level legislation that will require manufacturers to sell repair parts to independent repair shops and to consumers and will prevent them from artificially locking down their products to would-be repairers.
The advocacy group is not exactly new, more of a re-branding and re-launching of "The Digital Right to Repair Coalition", which was formed in 2013. Its aims are ambitious:
The Repair Coalition will primarily work at a federal level to repeal Section 1201 of the DMCA, which states that it's illegal to "circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under [the DMCA]." Thus far, activists have tried to gain "exemptions" to this section -- it's why you're allowed to repair a John Deere tractor or a smartphone that has software in it. But the exemption process is grueling and has to be done every three years.
Given the power of the industries that support Section 1201, it's hard to see it being repealed any time soon. However, the other part of the Repair Association's strategy looks more hopeful:
On a state level, the group will push for laws such as one being proposed in New York that would require manufacturers to provide repair manuals and sell parts to anyone -- not just licensed repair people -- for their products. The thought is that, if enough states pass similar legislation, it will become burdensome for manufacturers to continue along with the status quo. At some point, it will become easier to simply allow people to fix the things they own.
As software is routinely added to yet more categories of everyday physical objects, so the issue of the repair monopoly created as a by-product of the DMCA will become more pressing. It's good that there is now an advocacy group focussed on solving this problem. Let's hope it succeeds.