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'Right to Repair' Movement Wins Landmark Victory

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on October 26, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If your car breaks down, you can take it to just about any repair shop you want. You might even have the know-how and the parts to fix it yourself. The same hasn't always been true for smartphones and other electronic devices with embedded software.

U.S. copyright law prohibited bypassing, breaking, or hacking digital rights management ("DRM") and software locks to make repairs or reset phones. But a proposed exemption would allow consumers and independent repair experts to hack embedded software on their devices, including smartphones, cars, smart home appliances, and tractors. Yes, tractors.

Reset and Repair

The U.S. Copyright Office and Librarian of Congress have proposed changes to Section 1201 of federal copyright law that would permit consumers and repair professionals (those in possession of "lawfully acquired" devices) to break digital rights management (DRM) and embedded software locks for "the maintenance of a device or system ... in order to make it work in accordance with its original specifications" or for "the repair of a device or system ... to a state of working in accordance with its original specifications." The exception previously existed for tractors, and is being extended to consumer electronics as well.

The move is being hailed as a landmark victory to the "right to repair" movement. "I read it as the ability to reset to factory settings," Nathan Proctor, head of U.S. Public Interest Research Group's right to repair efforts, told Vice. "That's pretty much what we've been asking for."

Cat and Mouse

While the proposed rule doesn't make implementing DRM on such devices illegal, it does allow the owner or repairer of a device to bypass it. So companies can still install software locks and "kill switches" to try and prevent repairs and maintain a monopoly of access and repair to their devices. But consumers, if they are able, won't be penalizing for circumventing those efforts, for the purposes of reset or repair only.

Tech companies may limit access to devices as a way to protect their intellectual property. And that interest must be balanced against a consumer's right to a device they purchased. To make sure your IP is safe -- within the bounds of the law -- contact an experienced intellectual property attorney.

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