Section 1201 of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it both a crime and a civil offense to tamper with software locks that control access to copyrighted works -- more commonly known as "Digital Rights Management" or DRM. As the number of products with software in them has exploded, the manufacturers of these products have figured out that they can force their customers to use their own property in ways that benefit the company's shareholders, not the products' owners -- all they have to do is design those products so that using them in other ways requires breaking some DRM.
The conversion of companies' commercial preferences into legally enforceable rights has been especially devastating to the repair sector, a huge slice of the US economy, as much as 4% of GDP, composed mostly of small mom-n-pop storefront operations that create jobs right in local communities, because repair is a local business. No one wants to send their car, or even their phone, to China or India for servicing.
Ironically, China is one of the places were a lot of busted phones get sent, but not so that they can be fixed for their owners. Rather, the manufacturer-imposed limits on repair makes it so uneconomical to fix these devices that they're sold as ewaste, shipped in bulk to China, and refurbished there, creating jobs and value for that economy, taking it away from the US economy, and requiring US residents to waste money replacing devices that could be fixed and put back in their pockets.
Three states are considering "Right to Repair" bills that would override the DMCA's provisions, making it legal to break DRM to effect repairs, ending the bizarre situation where cat litter boxes are given the same copyright protection as the DVD of Sleeping Beauty. Grassroots campaigns in Nebraska, Minnesota, and New York prompted the introduction of these bills and there's more on the way. EFF and the Right to Repair coalition are pushing for national legislation too, in the form of the Unlocking Technology Act.
Kyle Wiens, the superman of the repair industry, writes eloquently about the economic and social rationale for the right to repair.
As computers continue to permeate everyday things, the DMCA could impact repair jobs across all industries—not just cars. Imagine a future where your smart fridge turns into a refrigerated brick, because Samsung stops updating it and no one else can repair it. Or Apple says only they should be able to fix your iPhone. Or John Deere says you can’t repair your own tractor.
If that sounds far-fetched, it’s not. It’s already happening. In 2015, I teamed up with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Intellectual Property Law Clinic at USC to request a DMCA exemption for farmers who wanted the freedom to repair their own tractors—even if it meant fixing and modifying the software without the manufacturer’s permission. John Deere opposed the request, saying farmers didn’t own the software in their tractors. Deere argued that farmers only have “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”
So much for ownership.
Thankfully, the US Copyright Office ruled with farmers and against Deere. But it’s not enough. John Deere just turned around and wrote an End User Licensing Agreement that chips away at an owner’s right to repair. Now it’s that much harder for anyone one but Deere to repair a tractor or develop diagnostic tools for independent repair shops.
The DMCA Strikes Back: How Copyright Law Could Cost You Your Job