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, 24x7 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.

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Filed Under: covid-19, digital locks, dmca 1201, drm, right to repair, ventilators


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2020 @ 11:35am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      z! (profile), 13 Jul 2020 @ 11:55am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2020 @ 12:12pm

        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).

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2020 @ 7:47am

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

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

        Sounds like commie talk. Why do you hate white babies?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2020 @ 11:57am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2020 @ 12:06pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 13 Jul 2020 @ 11:59am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2020 @ 12:11pm

    This situation is all thanks to a single, self interested judge, concerned with his own bank balance. The shit this has caused for everyone is absolutely astronomical! What a pity he cant be ' Named and Shamed', perhaps he would help to reverse his money grabbing ruling! Asshole!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 13 Jul 2020 @ 12:50pm

    Robin-hood Market

    I call this the "Robin-Hood-hat Hacking"

    That is: Technically Illegal, but doing so for an honorable and noble cause.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 13 Jul 2020 @ 1:17pm

    #HarryTuttleLives

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 13 Jul 2020 @ 2:18pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2020 @ 3:25pm

    Over the Top CopyRights' IP Protectionality

    That's why China IP protections are rolling over U.S. IP protections. No lock outs. No lock ins, sans Gov'ts' lock-ins. That's in a nut shell.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2020 @ 5:54am

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    nerd bert (profile), 14 Jul 2020 @ 7:26am

    I'm looking forward to this future?

    I supposed that it is inevitable with today's laws, that the only way you really "own" something is if you pirate it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    bshock, 14 Jul 2020 @ 8:18am

    Wait a minute, "Medtronic?" Not these schlockmeisters again. I've done some medical device work and I've run into the obsolete garbage they sell as equipment. It's not maintained -- they barely even maintain any record of what's inside it. I'd be surprised if they even knew how their own dongles work by now.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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