Photo: Illinois Sustainable Technology Center
Today, an increasing number of modern devices we use are fitted with software allowing them to perform work more efficiently. We can see this in cars that track diagnostic information which make repairs easier and in phones whose software gives us access to an endless amount of information that we can browse seamlessly. However, problems arise when a device malfunctions and you want to fix it yourself or take it to a local repair shop. Or, for example, when you realize the software itself is limiting the device's potential so you want to modify it to suit your needs, or even when you want to give the device containing the software to a friend. Seemingly innocent things, they are illegal due to copyright, specifically because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
When you purchase a device that contains software, you are often licensing that software under an “End User License Agreement.” This agreement can contain many restrictions which may vary based on which corporation you are buying it from and what device you are buying. One such agreement can restrict, for example, the consumer’s ability to resell the software. As decided in Vernor v. Autodesk, Timothy Vernor could not legally auction packages of AutoDesk’s AutoCAD software on eBay. This essentially states that when you purchase software, you are only renting it—you’re not the full owner of it. Any restrictions, as long as they are included in the agreement, can be enforced. This ruling applies specifically to software licenses, as the “first sale doctrine,” or the buyer's ability to sell or display copyrighted work, was upheld in the case of CDs, which are tangible objects.
While CDs do not have extensive manuals, other objects, like automobiles and phones, certainly do. Manufacturers of these devices are able to withhold the information contained within the manual from the public and make the information available exclusively to particular repair companies or dealers, most often connected to themselves. Anyone educating others on how to repair devices themselves can become embroiled in legal trouble. For example, Louis Rossman released a video demonstrating to viewers how to replace the fuse on a MacBook Air whose trackpad and keyboard stopped working. The video contained the schematic of the MacBook Air which had been obtained from an unidentified third party. This video was put on his Youtube channel with 194,000 subscribers, along with similar videos. Four months later, Rossman received a call from a lawyer threatening to sue under the DMCA if he did not edit the video to exclude the schematic. He refused, stating “I would love to see Apple tell the world that a fuse and 3.3 volt power line is a trade secret,” and that such schematics could be reproduced by examining the board themselves.
The movement to make this information public has accelerated in recent years. In 2012, Massachusetts voters passed the Automotive Right to Repair Act which required vehicle manufacturers to provide the same information to independent shops as dealer shops, with 86% of referendum voters saying yes. Since then, eleven states have passed right to repair laws. Groups representing both independent repair shops and car manufacturers have reached a national agreement that car manufacturers must release diagnostic system information for 2002 and later model cars by 2018, with some exceptions.
Those opposed to the withholding of this information have called such withholding competition-killing and unjust, while those in favor of concealing this information from consumers consider it necessary to protect intellectual property and to assure a quality product. The general public, however, seems overwhelmingly in favor of enacting “Right to Repair” legislation. As there is increased awareness of this issue, and agreements being made between coalitions of car manufacturers and repair shops, the “right to repair” is nearly guaranteed to be in the hands of the people in the near future.