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New copyright rule change will finally let owners fix broken devices

An unidentified man fixes an unidentified cell phone. Photo: krisanapong detraphiphat/Getty Images.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), passed in 1998, legally blocks consumers from hacking copyright protection software in order to fix a device they own. But a new rule will allow owners to breach copyright protection to fix their broken devices starting on Sunday.

Why it matters: Things break. Cell phone screens, panini press levers and talking toys all fall apart on occasion. But the internal software is sometimes set to make it impossible to conduct unauthorized repairs.

  • Not only does that make repairing things more expensive and impossible to do without the permission of a licensed pro, it means no one could legally fix devices whose manufacturers went out of business.

DMCA was originally intended to prevent file sharing from destroying the entertainment industry. The idea was to prohibit efforts to circumvent the digital rights management (DRM) guarding digital music, books and movies.

But, but, but: Other things besides entertainment media are copyrighted. That includes the software running automobiles, toasters and voting machines (and pretty much everything else that plugs in).

  • Use DRM to block access to that fundamental computer code, and you make it impossible to repair things.
  • Cars are already exempt from this rule.

Every three years, the Library of Congress determines new exemptions to DMCA, a list that currently includes third party testing of medical equipment, devices that read digital books for the blind and other use cases. As soon the new Library of Congress rule goes into effect on Sunday, it will include repairing devices as well.

Details: Specifically, the new rule will allow hacking "computer programs that are contained in and control the functioning of a lawfully acquired smartphone or home appliance or home system, such as a refrigerator, thermostat, HVAC or electrical system, when circumvention is a necessary step to allow the diagnosis, maintenance or repair of such a device or system."

  • It only counts as a repair if it is returning that device to its operating specs, not "fixing" a product by adding new features.
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