US Copyright Office suggests 'right to repair' laws a good idea

The DMCA wasn't meant to stop you fixing your car

Last week, to little fanfare, the US Copyright Office took its first baby steps towards stopping auto-makers wrapping their software in copyright rules.

The decision is important because auto-makers use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's “technical protection measures” (TPMs) provisions to restrict diagnosis and repair to an approved ecosystem.

That's especially galling for farmers in remote locations who have argued that they can't always wait for a factory rep to okay fixes to agricultural machines, while in the more mundane world of automobile mechanics, legitimate repair shops complain that Detroit uses the DMCA to exert market power.

In a lengthy report (PDF) that also canvasses how exceptions to the TPM rules could apply to accessibility technologies, device unlocking, and library archives, the office proposes legislation that sides at least in part with the “right to repair” lobby.

The report cites a submission from the Repair Association: since everything right down to an electric toothbrush depends on software, so does repairing a device.

Since “bona fide repair and maintenance activities are typically non-infringing”, the report suggests using the DMCA to tie up the repair market wasn't a legitimate use of the law.

Hence “to the extent section 1201 precludes diagnosis, repair, and maintenance activities otherwise permissible under title 17, the Office finds that a limited and properly‐tailored permanent exemption for those purposes, including circumventing obsolete access controls for continued functioning of a device, would be consistent with the statute’s overall policy goals”.

Further: “virtually all agree that section 1201 was not intended to facilitate manufacturers’ use of TPMs to facilitate product tying or to achieve a lock‐in effect under which consumers are effectively limited to repair services offered by the manufacturer”.

Sorry, tinkerers, you're not included: the shift in policy is specific to repair (and recovering kit that's obsolete, that is, unsupported by the manufacturer anyhow). If you want to circumvent TPMs to modify a product, you'll have to go through Copyright Office rulemaking processes. ®

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