Every year, the companies we rely on to make our computers, televisions, smartphones and other high tech marvels make it more difficult for us to repair their products. This dickery is accomplished through various methods: specialized screws that require a fancy screwdriver to remove, the creation of hardware that's designed in such a way that taking it apart to repair would do more harm than good, and through Digital Rights Management (DRM) to keep folks from futzing with their device's firmware. While right-to-repair advocates continue to fight for our right to unreservedly tinker with the stuff we own, The US Copyright Office gave them a wee taste of victory to hold them over until all of the fighting's done.
The Librarian of Congress and US Copyright Office just proposed new rules that will give consumers and independent repair experts wide latitude to legally hack embedded software on their devices in order to repair or maintain them. This exemption to copyright law will apply to smartphones, tractors, cars, smart home appliances, and many other devices.
The move is a landmark win for the “right to repair” movement; essentially, the federal government has ruled that consumers and repair professionals have the right to legally hack the firmware of “lawfully acquired” devices for the “maintenance” and “repair” of that device. Previously, it was legal to hack tractor firmware for the purposes of repair; it is now legal to hack many consumer electronics.
Thanks to this ruling, those inclined to do so will now be able to break the DRM on a device's firmware, provided they own it, for the sake of repairing it. The only stipulation is that doing so must not make it possible to acquire or copy other copyrighted material on the device.
As Motherboard points out, a great example of what's possible now can be found in the way that Apple's been handling third-party laptop repairs. In newer MacBooks, there's a software killswitch that'll bork the laptop if anyone that's not authorized to make the repair goes tinkering with the laptop's guts. Thanks to the Copyright Office's ruling, it's now perfectly legal for anyone that cares to do so to bypass this lockout and get their repair on.