In a blow to manufacturers that use digital rights management (DRM) protections to prevent consumers from tinkering with their own property, the U.S. Library of Congress has adopted new rules allowing anyone to hack the software of their devices for the purpose of performing repairs. The changes officially go into effect on October 28th.
Advocates in the “right to repair” movement have a lot of complaints about the various methods corporations use to control who repairs their products, box people into software updates, and force obsolescence. One of the complaints is that copyright law in the U.S. has made it illegal to break DRM that blocks a users access to a device’s firmware. Motherboard first noticed that all changed yesterday.
Every three years the U.S. Copyright Office reviews its own copyright rules and proposes various exemptions that have to be approved by the Librarian of Congress. On Thursday, the order was released adopting sweeping exemptions to DRM protections on devices like smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, cars, smart home appliances. Previously, the Copyright Office only allowed consumers to hack the firmware of tractors when they want to do a repair. The new rules make it legal to break into practically any device that has been “lawfully acquired” as long as the intent is to the diagnose, maintain or repair the device, “and is not accomplished for the purpose of gaining access to other copyrighted works.”
Practically speaking, the repercussions of this decision aren’t that big of a deal. Nathan Proctor leads consumer advocacy group US PIRG’s right to repair initiatives. He told Motherboard that his reading of the new rules essentially gives people the ability to restore their devices to the factory settings. Making modifications to the firmware is still prohibited and hackers are only allowed to break the DRM in order to bring the product back “to a state of working in accordance with its original specifications.”
It’s a small victory. And the wider effort to get right to repair laws for hardware on the books in multiple states continues.