Copyright shouldn't take away real property rights

iFixit's Kyle Wiens has a must-read op-ed in Wired on the insane way that copyright is being used to take away your property rights in tools as diverse as tractors and cars and cellphones and phone switches. The manufacturers use a variety of copyright claims (especially anti-circumvention claims under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act/DMCA) to make it illegal to understand how your stuff works, to improve on it, or to repair it. Wiens makes the good point that it's nuts to use metaphorical property (copyright) to end real property rights in things that you buy and pay for.

Meanwhile, progress is being made to legalize cellphone unlocking. With grassroots groups leading the charge, the Obama administration announced its support for overturning the ban last week. Since then, members of Congress have authored no fewer than four bills to legalize unlocking.

This is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. Let’s make one thing clear: Fixing our cars, tractors, and cellphones should have nothing to do with copyright.

As long as Congress focuses on just unlocking cellphones, they’re missing the larger point. Senators could pass a hundred unlocking bills; five years from now large companies will find some other copyright claim to limit consumer choice. To really solve the problem, Congress must enact meaningful copyright reform. The potential economic benefits are significant, as free information creates jobs. Service information is freely available online for many smartphones from iFixit (my organization) and other websites. Not coincidentally, thousands of cellphone repair businesses have sprung up in recent years, using the repair knowledge to keep broken cellphones out of landfills.

As long as we’re limited in our ability to modify and repair things, copyright — for all objects — will discourage creativity. It will cost us money. It will cost us jobs. And it’s already costing us our freedom.

Forget the Cellphone Fight — We Should Be Allowed to Unlock Everything We Own (via /.)


  1. On a tangent… I bought the iFixit 54bit screwdriver set last month and I got a kit with more than a few bad bits.  I was expecting a nightmare to get it returned given the maze of forms that was giving me, and boy was I surprised… I’ve never met a company so customer friendly and pro-active.  In the blink of an eye, they were directly emailing with me, replacing my kit and offering me all sorts of help. Huge, huge, huge fan of them now. 

  2. It is darkly ironic that ‘property’ would be the banner under which something most closely akin to a refined form of feudalism would come creeping back. 

    If you attempt ‘property’ maximalism you, ironically enough, end up with a situation where any given object of nontrivial complexity has so many partial ‘owners’, with de-facto veto power, that anything resembling ‘ownership’ becomes nearly impossible.

      1. That depends on the definition. I have a consistent definition of copyright. However it would never preclude someone modifying an object in which a copyright owner is the coowner of your property. I see no reason you can’t take pages out of a copyrighted book and make paper airplanes, or cut the pages so you can hide a gun inside the book. It does not involve copying the original protected work so it is not covered by copyright.

    1.  In a company town, everything the inhabitants use can be owned by the company, the only freedom they have is to leave for another place. If the only other place to go is also a company town, the worker’s aren’t exactly free, even though no one holds title to their person.

  3. Your language adds confusion to this topic. Please make the distinction between personal property (tractors, phones, etc.) and real property (real estate).  

    1. Why? I see zero confusion here on that subject. That’s a distinction in law, but in common practice, no one really needs to be constantly distinguishing between the two.

  4. If I buy something it belongs to me and is under my domain.  If anyone says different, the deal is off.  I’ll take it all, thank you.

    So copyright holder, what deal would you like?

    1. Out of interest, what are you writing this comment on, and how did you get that deal with the manufacturers?

      1.  You’re missing the point.  The contract is this, I give currency in exchange for a product.  Now if you want people to observe “copyright” it can’t be odious or diminish my right of ownership.

  5. This jogged an old memory: Fifty years ago I went to buy my first record player. I wanted a circuit diagram for it so there would not be any difficulty getting it repaired. This was in the days of tubes, when a diagram didn’t really mean much. The salesman told me the circuit was none of my business!

  6. The Right to Repair is important but not the point. You have the right to take apart and mess with anything you bought and paid for, nobody’s gonna arrest you. It gets hinky when you start offering upgrade kits for sale, or you instruct someone on how to mod their DVD player or game console… once you start sharing information! I say let’s try a crazy experiment. Abolish copyright! I see a lot of good and a lot of bad that could come with that decision, but as a country/species we do much crazier things every day. (Like manufacture, and threaten each other with, nuclear weapons) If you reply, please take some time and list one way in which abolishing copyright could improve your life and one way in which it might have negative consequences for you. I’ll post a summary of responses if people are interested.

    1. Abolishing copyright would mean kickstarter campaigns for fans to crowdsource funding for fan-produced films on cult or popular franchises whose IP holders refuse to or just poorly attempt to fulfill fan wishes for large movie productions.

      Abolishing copyright would let corporations with large budgets co-opt the works of poorer authors and artists without compensation or with devalued compensation (oh wait, this already happens…).

      1.  It would also mean that I could take the book you wrote and just print new copies of it without giving you a penny.  Or take the movie you funded yourself and just start selling copies of it.  Copyright serves a purpose, but that purpose has been perverted by Disney, the MPAA, the RIAA, and their buddies in Congress on both sides of the aisle. 

  7. This is why I don’t like it when people characterize copyright as a balance between copyright owners and users.  I prefer to characterized it as a balance between copyright owner and COPY owners. 

    1. To be clear, copyright is ALWAYS a limitation on the rights of an owner of a piece of tangible property.  If you own a CD, copyright limits your right to publicly perform it, or to copy it.  So it’s all about balancing the rights of owners of those tangible objects and the rights of those who own the copyrights on the works embodied in those tangible objects.  This post is about the expansion of the term “creative work,” to include many items not traditionally considered covered by copyright.

  8. As a property rights defending libertarian, I couldn’t agree more. Thanks!

    Individual property rights are the cornerstone of a free society. Without them, everything else is meaningless.

  9. I’d like to know how it was decided that software- having an effective shelf life of a few years at most- gets the same protection as literature, which may never go out of date. All the software that’s ever been written can still fall under “author’s lifespan + 70” even though much of that hardware is no longer functional. All the software at Abandonia is in theory illegal, but in practice no one cares. What would it look like if software was only protected for the time it would matter?

    1. Plenty of fad books go out of style before the copyright period. no one cares about those either but only because no one wants to by a new copy. Same is true of software.

    2. You are probably connecting to the internet using a variation on the BSD socket library (even if you are running Windows). That is a piece of software that’s about thirty years old, and it isn’t going away.

    1. There are many times when I can legally copy all or part of a copyrighted work. Personal backup copies. Fair use of excerpts. Prohibiting circumvention of DRM and other copy-protection meauses makes that illegal, whether my use would have infringed copyright or not. Therefore, it further decreases my rights as a copy owner relative to pre-internet copyright law.

  10. Not sure if this is what you are talking about  — we were given a riding lawnmower (used).  The manual was online and we were able to locate easily part numbers etc. the first year or so. Went to look it up a while back — the manual is no longer online.   Is this a copyright issue?

  11. I feel copyright law needs to start from scratch. The simplest printing press version is out of date. The mass media age built upon those shaky foundations to protect the appropriations of the Disney corporation. And then we stretched the limits of the logical and possible with copyright in the digital age. It’s not even clear copyright makes any sense at all in an age where so much value lies in sharing information, and selling content has become a technologically dubious business model. There is a reason newspapers, music, commercial TV, and movie business models are being pressured. It has more to do with technology (perfect reproduction) than society (piracy).  In the mass media age we needed copyright to protect big publishers. Today we need copyright to protect individual publishers, as the big ones decay. It’s unclear whether reform is possible or sensible. Maybe it’s time to reboot. 

  12. A concept intended to protect and reward real live _human_beings_ who alone are capable of authoring new works and inventing new things (two _very_ different endeavors) has been perverted to give corporate individuals the ‘right’ to steal creative work, and worse, to prevent progress by refusing to introduce new inventions, and everyone here is splitting hairs about the details. Hopeless.

    P.S. While you were arguing, the game changed; It is no longer about who gets the discretionary income you spend on entertainment, but whether the new technology needed to grow the economy, and (worst case) keep you supplied with the necessities of life is brought on line in time.

Comments are closed.