01 November, 2018

Fixing Your Rights - The US Copyright Office Expands Right to Repair

The right to repair the devices, vehicles and other goods you own seems to be a given right when looked at on the face of it. After all, you bought the item, therefore you should be able to maintain it and try to prolong its lifecycle in your use; however, this is not exactly this simple. Some IP provisions hinder or even outright prevent the repair, modification or tinkering of those goods, particularly through copyright in proprietary systems to those goods. Many have fought over the right to repair, discussed on this blog before, but the line hasn't clearly been drawn in the sand as to what is okay and what isn't. In the light of this, the US Copyright Office was recently petitioned to rectify this wrong, and the right to repair movement took great strides in allowing this practices.

As a primer, under 17 USC 1201, a person is not allowed to "…circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title". These types of measures include digital rights management software, or the encryption of software or underlying code in sophisticated machines or goods. More recent examples include the disabling of iPhones that detect third-party repairs or parts, and John Deere preventing tractors from being repaired under their user licences.

In a ruling released last week (including a very thorough background document here), the Copyright Office decided that owners of certain goods and vehicles could repair those devices without infringing on copyright.

Firstly, the Office allowed the 'jailbreaking' of computer programs (i.e. gaining access to the operating system to allow the installation and running of unauthorized software) relating to 'voice assistant devices like Amazon's Echo or Google's Home. The exemption already applied to smartphones, and is now extended to these types of devices.

Not all damage is fixable, even with extensive rights
The Office also focussed on computer programs that disabled the repair and diagnosis of land vehicles, specifically personal automobiles, commercial vehicles or mechanized agricultural vehicles (including any telematics systems, i.e. an in-vehicle computer). When the circumvention of the software is needed to repair, diagnose and lawfully modify the vehicles, the Office considers this circumvention to be lawful. They also expanded this to include the same for smartphones, home appliances such as fridges and HVAC or electrical systems. What needs to be noted is that 'maintenance' specifically only includes the "…servicing of the device or system in order to make it work in accordance with its original specifications and any changes to those specifications authorized for that device or system".

Any repairs discussed above are also allowed to be done by third-party vendors, and not simply the owner of the device and/or vehicle. This is a huge step, as the third-party repair market is important to support those who do not have the technical know-how or inclination to do their own repairs.The ruling also does not exempt some circumventions, including any non-land vehicles (such as planes and boats), or devices that do not fit into the categories set out above. One can understand the hesitation to give a very broad exemption by the Copyright Office, as this could have unintended consequences or provide for uses that should not be allowed for. This distinction will undoubtedly change, but incremental changes can hinder the steps towards progress in the long run. The Office also denied the right to repair in relation to gaming consoles, which raised strong concerns of piracy if allowed.

The expansion of the right to repair devices and vehicles is an important part of protecting the environment and minimising unnecessary purchases of new devices or vehicles when the repair of the old one would have been prohibitively expensive. Many advocates for this right will rejoice at the ruling, while manufacturers will be less than thrilled losing control over the devices or vehicles once sold to the end-user. It remains to be seen whether the Office will expand these exemptions in the future, but seeing their inclination to do so, this writer thinks these rights will only be expanded on once new technologies become more commonplace and the need for their repair necessary.

Source: iFixit

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