You Now Have the ‘Right to Tinker’ With the Software of Smartphones and Amazon’s Alexa, Thanks to a New Copyright Rule

October 29, 2018, 11:56 AM UTC

Americans just got a major new right—the right to hack the digital locks on the devices they own, in order to repair those devices.

While people have always taken for the granted the fact that they could tinker with the things they own in order to fix them—traditional cars and phones, for example—this was until now generally not true when it came to things with software embedded in them.

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, it is illegal to break the “technological protection measures” that are supposed to block the alteration of software. This meant that people with technical skills were legally forbidden from messing around with the code in their software-equipped property, such as their smartphones, even if doing so would help fix problems with the equipment.

Every three years, the Copyright Office approves new exemptions to the DMCA, and on Sunday its latest exemption came into effect. After much lobbying from digital rights activists and repair shop advocates, the “freedom to tinker” is now in effect—up to a point.

So, as iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens explained in a blog post last week, owners and third-party repair shops can now fix bugs in people’s smartphones and smart-home equipment without breaking the law. It is now legal to unlock new phones and to “jailbreak”—install new firmware on—voice-assistant devices such as Amazon’s Echo.

It is also now legal to modify the software in cars, even though manufacturers tried to argue before the Copyright Office that this would enable music and movie piracy. However, the advocates for change failed to convince the Copyright Office that they should be allowed to repair games consoles such as Sony’s PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One.

“Nowadays, just about everything has software,” Wiens wrote. “Your ability to fix and maintain the products you own is contingent on being able to modify that software. But our tooling hasn’t kept up. For fear of prosecution, farmers and independent mechanics haven’t developed their own software tools to maintain their equipment. Now, they can.”

Campaign leader Nathan Proctor, of the public interest group U.S. PIRG, told the Washington Post that the move would help cut down on electronic waste, as more products are now fixable. However, he said, it would be good to see manufacturers forced to offer people the manuals and diagnostic tools that could help them undertake repairs.

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