In a big victory for hacker, tinkerers, and the right to repair movement, the US Copyright Office has ruled some major changes to the legal exemption to the DMCA, making it far easier for owners to build software tools to hack, modify, and repair their own devices, as explained by iFixit founder Kyle Wiens.
Under section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), it is “unlawful to circumvent technological measures used to prevent unauthorized access to copyrighted works.” Because software has become so integral to all the devices we use — everything from phones to speakers to even trackers — device manufacturers have long used section 1201 to prevent owners from taking apart or repairing their own devices, arguing that breaking the software locks as part of replacing parts or modifying your gadgets is a violation of that statute.
But as part of that law, citizens are allowed to petition for exemptions to section 1201 every three years, when the Copyright Office rules what kind of repairs and software tools are and aren’t allowed by the law. The final ruling for this cycle was just released (it goes into effect as law on October 28th), and it enacts broad new protections for repairing devices.
Wiens’ post breaks down the biggest changes, which include:
- The right to jailbreak and modify voice-assistant devices, like those powered by Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant
- It’s now legal to unlock new phones, and not just used ones
- There’s a general exemption for repairing “smartphones,” “home appliances,” and “home systems.” Wiens points out that this could help users legally fix devices like the permanently bricked Revolv home hub by installing new firmware or software.
- It’s legal to repair cars, tractors, and other motorized land vehicles by modifying the software on your own. (This has been an issue for some time, with tractor company John Deere in particular making the fairly ludicrous argument that letting users modify software on the tractors that they own — even in the name of doing legitimate repair work — could lead to owners hacking the tractors and using them to pirate music. Yes, really.)
- Lastly, it’s legal for other third parties to do these kinds of repairs on your behalf — so even if you can’t code your way into fixing a bricked smart home, it’s not illegal to pay someone who can to do it for you.
There are still some major aspects of 1201 that remain in place. The Copyright Office didn’t grant exemptions to section 1201 for game console repairs — meaning you still can’t replace a busted CD drive on your Xbox or PS4 on your own, since those parts are locked via software to the specific console for security reasons.
The ruling is also specific for those specific categories of smartphones, home appliances, home systems, and motorized land vehicles — so things that don’t fit in those buckets (like planes or boats) are still protected by the law and can’t be hacked.
Lastly, and most crucially, the Copyright Office’s ruling still doesn’t allow trafficking in the software tools to circumvent these kinds of software locks, even in the name of repair. So you can develop the tools to repair things yourself, and folks can pay you to do those repairs for them, but you can’t distribute or sell those tools to others.
Still, it’s a big win for the gadget repair community, and one that codifies into law the right for you to fix or hack or repair the things you bought any way you want, regardless of what the manufacturer says. And as our devices become ever more reliant on software, that’s a very good thing.