New DMCA rules offer written vindication for right-to-repair movement

Someone up there cares. After two decades, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has been revised to include an exemption for consumers and third parties to circumvent digital rights management (DRM) software or other locks to perform repair and maintenance to certain electronic devices. While it’s a high-level development with little immediate effect for consumers or repair professionals on the ground, it’s still being celebrated as a landmark achievement for the right to repair movement, which advocates for more leeway in performing repairs to consumer-owned electronics.

There are plenty of specifics built into the DMCA’s exemptions that we won’t detail here, but you can find a good rundown of the changes here. Or if you're up for it, read the newly revised act in its entirety here. In short, it’s good news for cell phone repair.

The DMCA’s Original MO

For years, section 1201 of the DMCA has been the bane of consumers and repair professionals hoping to fix electronic devices. The 1998 act made it illegal to bypass digital rights management (DRM) software or other locks to perform repairs to electronics, under the rationale that this constituted a violation of the manufacturer’s copyright. According to Timothy Lee at Ars Technica, the act came about to help combat “piracy of music, movies, and other digital media. But companies quickly recognized that it could become a general-purpose way to restrict the use of any consumer product that includes software on it.”

Granted, the law was enacted before smartphones became the ubiquitous extensions of our hands that they are today. But with the rapid increase in consumer electronics and software-enabled devices since the law came into effect, companies have been using the broad language of the act to restrict user access to third party repair. It’s resulted in legal action against third party professionals and seizure of aftermarket parts, and it generally makes it a hassle to fix or maintain electronics, either for yourself or for others.

The ruling helped force the rise of the right to repair movement, which, peculiarly enough, has its roots in tractor repair thanks to severe restrictions rolled out by companies like John Deere to control the maintenance of its goods.

Manufacturers Will Keep Fighting

This comes as a massive and surprising victory for the right to repair movement, even if it is only in writing. Because while this means the copyright office won’t continue to enforce the restrictions from the DMCA’s infamous section 1201, it doesn’t mean manufacturers will suddenly play nice and stop including DRM on devices. In fact, it may get worse, with manufacturers making it harder than ever to hack their DRM. Companies may even explore new ways to deter consumers from seeking out third party repair. Apple’s new vintage repair pilot program, anyone?

But let’s end on a happy note. You can now repair smartphones and tablets without the government wagging a finger at you.

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