Repairs specialist iFixit has urged the US Copyright Office to add exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that would allow individuals to legally circumvent digital restrictions in the process of repairing hardware.
Exemptions to Section 1201 – the relevant bit – are renewed every three years, and are carved out by the Librarian of Congress on the basis of recommendations from the US Copyright Office.
For the first time, the iFixit, together with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a slew of other right-to-repair advocates, asked for a sweeping exemption that would allow for the breaking of digital locks (often referred to as Technological Protection Measures, or TPMs) for the purpose of repairs, irrespective of what category the product belongs to.
If approved, this waiver would apply to anything that runs software in the normal course of its operations, from games consoles and smartphones to medical devices and tractors.
Crucially, it would extend the proposals to computers for the first time. Historically, computers used a modular design that permitted the user-replacement of certain components, like memory, storage, and the CPU. That has gradually started to change, with components soldered to the board, and serialised with technical measures (such as Apple's T2 security chip) to prevent replacement.
"Historically, computers haven't had TPMs. Your bog-standard PC, you can get in, you can access and replace anything. But what we're starting to see now is, Apple has taken the security chip from iOS devices – the thing we have to jailbreak in iOS devices – and they've put it on their computers," said iFixit founder Kyle Wiens.
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"We're seeing more secure boot techniques across the board, on all general-purpose computers. Historically, there wasn't a circumvention needed to do service. Now, overwhelmingly, it is, and that's been a huge sea change in the last three years."
Predictably, this proposal met stiff opposition from the concerned industries. Morgan Reed, president of ACT, the App Association (formerly known as the Association for Competitive Technology), suggested that extending this proposal to medical devices could harm patient safety. Similar arguments were made by the automotive industry when voters were asked to approve a car-focused right-to-repair bill.
At the height of the pandemic, the US Public Interest Group published the results of a survey of 222 biomedical repair professionals [PDF] and their experiences in accessing crucial components or documentations in the months following March. Almost half said they were denied access to components, documentation, or service keys during a time when respiratory equipment was in scarce supply.
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Medics ask for right to repair medical devices during pandemic
Last month, The Lancet medical journal published a letter from a trio of physicians and biomedical engineers which urged lawmakers to pass a medical right-to-repair law, claiming it would give them "the right to save lives."
"With high-use demands brought on by COVID-19, even for newer equipment, repair and maintenance issues arise from high use related to patient volume, acuity, and turnover. COVID-19 has forced hospitals to use ventilators that have been in storage for many years, including some that were previously decommissioned," the article stated.
"There is an opportunity now for the medical community to ensure that the medical field benefits from access rights to open data that are similar to the rights for consumer electronics and automobiles… During these extraordinary times, such legislation for the right to repair not only moves the medical field in a more affordable, efficient, and sustainable direction but also enables life-saving services to continue to be available at times of high stress."
This line of reasoning is additionally challenged by research from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which found that repairs to medical devices performed by independent technicians were as safe and effective as those from the manufacturer's own technicians.
It won't apply to movies and music
The entertainment industry similarly expressed its unhappiness with the proposal, claiming allowing the legal circumvention of TPMs would facilitate piracy. This is not a new argument, with similar claims made in right-to-repair hearings in statehouses across the US.
iFixit and its pals responded to this by citing the comparatively limited scope of its proposals, which focus on repairs rather than the ability to run unverified code on these machines, as well as the current challenges in performing basic repairs for some systems. Most notably, in order to replace the optical drive on the Xbox One, users must also replace the motherboard. This is inherently wasteful, and results in higher repair costs for consumers.
Similar restrictions were found in older consoles too. The original Xbox's spinning-disk HDD was linked to the device's firmware with a cryptographic key that must be extracted for a replacement to take place.
The group of repair advocates, which also included the Nebraska Farm Bureau, also raised the question about why these exemptions must be renewed on a rolling basis, with the company's US policy lead Kerry Maeve Sheehan quoted as saying: "Repair is non-infringing, and that doesn't differ whether it's a tractor, a lightbulb, or a smart litterbox."
If approved, the proposals would remain valid from October 2021 until October 2024, upon which they would need to be renewed. The public hearings on the amendments (held via Zoom) ended this week, but it's not clear when the Copyright Office will make its decision. ®