What the newly revised copyright law lets (and doesn’t let) you do with your gadgets

You think you own your phone, but you don’t. Copyright law prohibits you from modifying its software in certain ways, opening you up to a voided warranty, cancelled service or even a lawsuit — but that’s slowly changing as the government acknowledges the need (and arguably right) to repair our own devices. A favorable decision from the Copyright Office gives you considerably more freedom with your gadgets, but it’s far from an ideal solution.

As a brief bit of background, the law that prevents you from, say, installing third-party software on your car or sideloading apps onto your Amazon Echo is Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It’s meant to make it illegal to circumvent digital copyright protections on software and media, but it’s been used for much more than that.

Companies started stashing all kinds of things behind digital locks and therefore controlling the only means that consumers had to repair or modify them. Digital rights advocates such as Kyle Wiens at iFixit have been pushing back against this practice for years — and recently have made some headway.

Every three years a board of Copyright Office wonks convenes and codifies exemptions to Section 1201: devices or situations that the board is convinced justifiably shouldn’t be covered by the law. What if, for instance, hospitals couldn’t reboot or patch critical medical hardware because the company was unresponsive? Exemptions are added based on merit, but aren’t permanent and must be renewed (and likely re-argued) regularly.

2015’s exemptions were nice, but 2018’s are choice. Here are some things you can do now that you couldn’t last week:

  • Unlock new phones. Believe it or not this was not allowed. Used phones, sure. But new-in-box phones could still sport software locking it to, say, Verizon (our parent company’s parent company, which likely is not happy with this decision) even though its hardware would let it work on AT&T. Now you should be able to unlock at will.
  • Jailbreak Amazon Echoes, Google Homes and Apple HomePods. This class of “voice assistant devices” wasn’t really a thing in 2015, but sure is now. Doubtless there are plenty of people who would love to poke around inside an old Echo and load it up with open-source software — and now they can do so in compliance with the law.
  • Repair smart home components and devices. Ever wonder what happens to a smart home device when its maker goes out of business or you stop paying for their subscription service? It turns into a smart paperweight. But now you should be able to get root access and fix or reactivate devices (like smart bulbs or security cameras) that have been abandoned or bricked.
  • Access and modify land vehicle software. Previously cars (and infamously, tractors) were protected by a thick moat of DRM that prevented users and even repair shops from getting at their digital guts. Not a good thing when cars are basically rolling computers. The law now exempts reading and modifying this software for the purposes of repair — you just can’t tweak it in any way that impairs its roadworthiness.
  • Hire someone to do those repairs for you. Many of these exemptions are restricted to the owner of the device or vehicle, reasonably enough. But not everyone is clued in on this stuff, so it’s important to make sure it’s also legal for consumers to delegate that right to a third party.

These new freedoms will hopefully result in a more flourishing used-device market and allow phones, cars and smart home devices to live longer and happier lives. But don’t forget that these exemptions must be refreshed in three years. Fortunately that gives advocates an opportunity to expand the list as well, as they did here.

That’s good, because there are still plenty of things to add; for instance game consoles, which didn’t make the list. Perhaps the board thought the risk of piracy was too high. Boats and planes are still protected the way cars once were, which is perhaps understandable.

Strangely, the tools you would require to do most of these things — bootloaders, jailbreaking kits and so on — are still illegal to distribute. It’s weird, but not the first time for this sort of paradox — marijuana, for instance, is still in many places legal to own and use but illegal to sell or grow.

This all goes to show that there is much room for improvement, and not just in a series of temporary exemptions. The law itself must be modified permanently to ensure that we actually own the things we own. That’s going to take a lot of time and work, but from this and previous victories it’s clear that the stars are aligning.