back to article Right-to-repair warriors seek broader DMCA exemptions to bypass digital locks on the stuff we own

Right-to-repair advocates are arguing with the US government over what legal powers people have to fix or upgrade their own kit without paying manufacturers. On June 22, 2020, the US Copyright Office put out a call for petitions to renew existing exemptions to the copyright law that prohibits bypassing the digital locks that …

  1. cb7


    A few times now, I've come across some recent MacBooks that don't sleep anymore when the lid is closed after having non-Apple replacement screens fitted.

    I've not been able to find any documented fixes for this behaviour either.

    1. Updraft102

      I just saw a Youtube video entitled "iPhone 12 Anti Repair Design - Teardown and Repair Assessment", from Hugh Jeffreys. He bought two brand new iPhone 12s and tried swapping parts from one to the other. As in your example, the phone worked, but not correctly. Even simply switching the camera from one to the other was enough... a part-swapped phone would not turn on when on battery. It would when on mains, but if one tried to use the camera, it dropped the preview framerate to the point that it was a slideshow.

      When the "logic board" (as he called it) was swapped, it also refused to turn on when on battery, but it would bombard the user with error messages as soon as it finished booting.

      Of course, I am sure we all remember the error 53 message that appeared on an iOS update if anyone had at some point in the past replaced the touchscreen panel.

      It's not enough that they glue or rivet the things together so strongly that they are hard to get apart. They have to lock each part to some central bit (probably the motherboard) so that the parts supply doesn't exist. Apple won't sell you parts, and they make it so if you get the exact part you need, it's still no good. How can they tell you the price for the repair (that might actually be very reasonable by a third party if Apple allowed it) is almost as much as a new iThing, so why not just buy another one right now?

      That's the thing that makes this hoopla over the new Apple M2 irrelevant to me. Interesting that they did it, but there's no way I am going to buy anything from a company with their business practices. I keep my electronic things a long time and use them until they are legitimately obsolete. If they fail or are damaged, I repair them. I do not want to be upsold when my old item could be repaired for a quarter of the price of their deliberately overpriced repair that's meant to push more sales. If I buy something disposable, whether it be a razor or a ballpoint pen or a laptop, it needs to be "the cost is so low that I don't care" cheap, and that's not the market Apple is in. Even a very cheap laptop needs to at least have a battery I can replace in a few moments with basic hand tools.

      In other news, the DMCA was an abomination when it was passed and it should be repealed yesterday. What a big fat smooch that was to the megacorporations in the US! We need to dump the corporatocracy.

  2. sbt

    A toast to all the public-spirit organisations and individuals ...

    ... who undertake Sisyphean engagements with governments and bureaucracies despite their Kafkaesque natures and try to balance well-funded corporate interests.

    No point having 'fair-use' rights if there are no practical, legal means to copy.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Land of the free"!

    1. big_D Silver badge

      It has been that way for a long time.

      A German friend of mine went on a school exchange year to California in the late 80s and, coming from the highly regulated Germany, was astounded how many of the freedoms he took for granted he had to give up.

      The irony is that the German regulations often guarantee what you can do, not stop you from doing things.

      For example, at 16, he could legally drink and smoke and buy alcohol and cigarettes, he got to America and he wasn't allowed to drink and he wasn't allowed to smoke at school.

      He got picked up by the police for walking around the guest family's neighbourhood near Beverly Hills. The police told him that having people walking on the street made the residents nervous! He was advised to go out the back of the guest family's house into the woods. A couple of days later, a police officer mounted on a horse suddenly appeared in front of him on a woodland trail and said, "oh, you must be the German exchange student!"

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        US and walking

        We had gone for a drink at a local US bar near our apartment. It was a short 1 mile (20 minute walk). We walked along, as we were all planning on drinking. We were queried about that as nobody walks about the neighbourhood.

        I watched others drinking, then heading out to the parking lot and driving back to the residential estate. Seemed to be the norm in that part of Texas.

        My friend forgot his ID, despite being mid-20s. They drew 2 X's in black ink on his hands and we got checked for trying to give him drink.

        1. big_D Silver badge

          Re: US and walking

          When I was younger, I was a sailing instructor and helped out at the Gerald Daniel Police Sailing School in Chichester Harbour. I was 16 at the time.

          The head of the school packed everybody into a mini-bus and we trundled off to the local pub. An officer bought me a beer (I was 16), but a WPC who was 24 was refused, even after she produced her police warrant card, because she looked too young! Only when her CO intervened was she served. She was absolutely livid at the barman!

          1. MJI Silver badge

            Re: US and walking

            She should have arrested the barman for wasting Police time

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: US and walking

          Pasty whiter-than-white Brit here. Pennsylvania, walking 100 yds from a hotel near Allentown to the bar next door bar. Only time I've ever been referred to as an N-word; by some yokels in a pickup.

          And then our US-ian colleagues have the temerity to wonder why they've got the worst obesity rates in the world. And gun problems. And, and, and, and...

          Don't get me wrong I still love travelling in the States and the crazy range of whackjobs that live there; but, guys seriously, sort out your education. Please.

          1. Danny 2

            Re: US and walking

            Pastier white than the whitest Brit here, a Scot who'd seen less sun than a veal calf. 18 year old drinkers in California unable to get a drink, and everyone assumed we were junkies. Across a busy business street someone shouted, "Hey man, do you want to buy some smack?"

            "No, but could you buy us some alcohol please?"

        3. bombastic bob Silver badge

          Re: US and walking

          Yes, it seems that in Dallas, it's unusual for anyone to walk even a mile distance. I was told (when I was there on business) that it was not uncommon for people to drive 2 blocks. Seriously.

          [I was there to resolve a firmware problem that turned out to be (primarily) caused by a former employee of the customer, and in a few days, we got it back on schedule - product shipped, etc.]

  4. DvorakUser

    Too logical...

    I think that every device that falls out of support from the manufacturer should automatically be granted an exception. Obviously, as this makes sense, it would never see the light of day in the political world.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: every device that falls out of support from the manufacturer

      Think of the manufacturers! This would be CATASTROPHIC for their profits, in fact, catastrophic for a whole GLOBAL business model. So yes, chances, even remote, becoming a law, nil.

    2. needmorehare

      Or require

      That the onus is on the user of any tools which can be used to infringe, not the person distributing them, if the code for the tool itself isn't infringing on someone's copyright. Boom! Problem sorted. It all remains illegal but unenforceable in practice, as people can then post visual dry-run tech demos to show how the tools should work and then let end users "do their own repairs" while in some cases being "supervised" by a repair shop which is "teaching them how to repair" their own stuff ;-)

      All the devs and paid pros are now exhibiting non-infringing behaviour while the end user breaks the law. No company wants to be seen to be suing their own customer base, so they will all then step down.

    3. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: Too logical...

      I think that, if a manufacturer refuses the right to repair, it should automatically be obliged to extend the guarantee to the lifetime of the product.

      Oh, and I mean the real lifetime, not the projected, expected lifetime. Guarantee until the thing breaks down physically.

      I can't repair my own kit that you took my money for ? Fine, you do it then. For free and for as long as I have it.

  5. Lon24

    Yes, but ...

    A company I worked for sold a computer product whose performance and functionality was controlled by firmware. Hence we could sell essentially the same product at different price points into different markets. The advantage to the customer was they only had to pay for what they needed and to the company that it only had to develop and support one line of computers with a cost saving that was reflected in the competitive price of the product.

    Now should a customer be able to buy a base model and tweak the firmware to turn it into the top? Clearly that would destroy the business model and deprive all customers of choice of this product.

    It's a difficult one. So I do think a universal right to re-engineer is not in anybody's interest. However, a presumption that you can fix-it is. The consumer should not have to justify doing it. The onus is on the manufacturer to make a clear challengable case that their product should be protected. Protection should have a sunset timeline

    Turning manufacturer spurned 'junk' back into usable product is to be encouraged. The only defence a producer should have against right of repair is the right to void warranty as it may produce a product it is unfeasible to support. Warranty has a sunset timeline anyway - unless you believe in lifetime guarantees ;-)

    1. dvd

      Re: Yes, but ...

      No, if that's a viable business model then it just means that your customer is overpaying for the item without the firmware crippling in it (I used to work for a company thread did this shit too.)

      1. Lon24

        Re: Yes, but ...

        No - because it is priced low to compete with other products at that level. If it is priced at top whack - they won't buy, we wouldn't manufacture and the customer has less choice and our competitors would be free to hike their price so you would pay more.

        Things are not simple. I'm arguing that this is not an area to be left to manufacturers. It should be regulated and regulated in the consumers interest. It is up to the company to make a clear case. It's up to the government to ensure decisions are impartial (difficult I know in the current political climate).

        That's all. No universal right either way but presumption in the consumer's favour.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Yes, but ...


          It's that simple. If they want to *sell* higher quality stuff with artificial hobbling at lower cost, that's up to them.

          If someone wants to then modify their own stuff then they should be able to. Just because it affects their business model should be irrelevant.

          1. DiViDeD

            Re: Yes, but ...

            Anyone remember the Intel 80486, The DX version, with the coprocessor, was eyewateringly expensive, but you could buy an SX, where an additional manufacturing process had been applied, namely an engineer snipping off the coprocessor pins, for half the price.

            And the speed setting of the CPU itself - all 486s were designed to be DX2 66Mhz, and the speed was downgraded depending on the point where the samples for that batch failed.

            Ah, heady times!

    2. Updraft102

      Re: Yes, but ...

      Now should a customer be able to buy a base model and tweak the firmware to turn it into the top?

      Absolutely. He bought it, it's his property. Any concerns about the profit of the maker of the unit cease to have any relevance the moment ownership changes hands.

      Clearly that would destroy the business model and deprive all customers of choice of this product.

      Then they need a new business model. If they want to market a product on different pricing tiers when all that changes is a few NVRAM settings, that's their prerogative, but if customers want to try to upgrade any bit of their own property to perform better, that is their prerogative too. I overclocked my PC years ago, and I didn't think once about how I should be paying Intel more because it works better the way I configured it than the way it came out of the box! I bought the physical product, and it was still that same product when I "enhanced" it. I modify things I bought all the time. It's my right, as the just owner of those items.

      That overclocked PC still runs great, seven or more years later. If it would have come with an operating system, it would have been EOL by now too, which is supposed to make me go buy a new PC, but I bypassed that too. It runs Linux now, and I expect that to work on the hardware for many years to come.

      I do that kind of stuff with nearly everything electronic I own, and a lot of non-electronic stuff too. Apple talks a big game about being "green," but forcing perfectly good items into artificial obsolescence isn't green at all. I know that was not what the post I replied to was about, but fixing things instead of buying new breaks someone's business model too. It doesn't mean it shouldn't happen.

    3. trindflo Bronze badge

      Re: Yes, but ...

      The state owes its citizens a fair playing field, but does not owe its businesses the right to maintain profit margins. Having different customers pay different amounts for the same product is an important goal in maximizing profits. The company owner you worked for managed to pull this off, at least for a while. That should be considered a windfall profit. IBM used to be the king at this sort of thing.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: should a customer be able to buy a base model and tweak the firmware

      do you mean, legally? If so, and as it voids warranty, sure, as he then takes over responsibility - and risk. There's more than one prior case, when "hacked" firmware has helped consumers (by, arguably, sometimes hitting potential manufacturers' profits). Some canon (and samsung, I think) cameras came with firmware that, locked features available in hardware itself, because canon sold the product as "cheaper version of". There's a relatively well-known whack-a-mole case of lenovo firmware for the older (now) x-series laptops, where certain, doctored firmware, unlocked options to swap keyboards, install more ram, non-approved components, and unlock / add other bios-available features, and lenovo tried to squash the rebellion in each new firmware update.

      Although, the issue of "should the customer be able", legally, is moot, in the sense that, by tweaking the firmware, the customer does void warranty anyway. How would manufacturers find out and try to fight it, legally? Unless those tweaking are dumb enough to try to update their tweaked firmware with manufacturer's own, it goes bang, and they complain to the manufacturer...

      Actually, I'd love to unlock the firmware of one, fairly specific piece of hardware, already "out of support", where the firmware upgrade, substantially improving parameters, would cost me about 50% on top of the price (2nd hand) hardware itself. And it's not 10 quid on top of 20 quid, nosir, we're talking a bit more serious money :(

    5. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: Yes, but ...

      I have no problem with the business model. Others will, and it's clear to see why, but I think it's the right of a company to intentionally weaken a product just as it's the right of a company to produce one that's built from lower-power components so it's cheap. As long as they don't build it specifically to fail fast, I am fine with it.

      As for a user tweaking it, they should definitely have the right to do so if they wish. The manufacturer doesn't have to make those options easily available to them. Your employer doesn't have to give the firmware source out to the users, or put the settings in the standard interface, or anything else, but if a user finds a way to make use of the components by changing something, that's their right to do. Just as it would be their right to disassemble the thing they own and use the parts in other devices, they can change one of the parts out for something else they own. You don't have to support a modified product, and I'm sure your warranty specified that you didn't support it if they had opened it up and swapped components. Similarly, you could forbid any such modifications for a rented unit.

      Companies want to make it hard for people to change how a product runs. I get that. Sometimes it annoys me, but I feel they have the right to do it if they want to. What I don't think they should have a right to do is to sue me if I succeed despite their obstruction, because it means they're making it illegal for me to go against their wishes with something I own.

    6. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

      Re: Yes, but ...

      We're in the business of buying this sort of computery stuff... final end user of various bits of CNC motion control stuff (lathes + robot loaders mostly).

      My boss has already spoken about 'upgrading' the base models we have for the ones with the extra bells and whistles, however pointing out if he turns on the extra memory option, the m/board may not HAVE the ram installed to use..... in which case it throws a mighty hissy fit and refuses to boot at all, or the seensors/motion encoders may not be fitted to the machine to enable certain 'extra cost' functions.

      The result could be a complete parameter wipe, which is very expensive.. or the machine itself doing illegal motion because its not checking the PLAs for the safety cutouts.... which is even more expensive than the first option.

      However I'm talking about very expensive industrial equipment here rather than the consumer grade stuff under discussion..... and lets face it.... illegal to replace the DVD drive.... bollocks.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This is really great. Hopefully it passes as we need to be able to repair these things (with 3rd party and official) parts.

  7. Franco

    A barrage of lawyers for Apple (and many others) are even as we speak drafting a response about how this law is necessary to protect their intellectual property.

    It has absolutely nothing to do with planned obsolescence or ensuring that people have to replace rather than repair, or at the very least use only authorised repairs.

    1. Alan Mackenzie

      > A barrage of lawyers for Apple (and many others) are even as we speak drafting a response about how this law is necessary to protect their intellectual property.

      Yes, they're fiends in misdirection. Their so-called "intellectual property" isn't in any danger, thus taking about "protecting" it is a nonsense.

  8. bittenhand

    Trammell Hudson, director of special projects at Lower Layer Labs

    Trammell, really? You must have taken that from the plot of a video game.

    But I'd love to have it on my business card.

    1. Updraft102

      Re: Trammell Hudson, director of special projects at Lower Layer Labs

      Trammell Starks, great musician and composer.

  9. MJI Silver badge

    My PC is old

    I am still using a PC built in 2009 (I think), with now 7 on it.

    It cost me enough quad core CPU MB maxed with RAM and HDDs in the terabytes.

    It works and was saved from scrap a couple of years ago by water cooling it.

  10. hoola Silver badge

    It is not just tech devices

    Modern cars now have so much technology embedded in everything that it is becoming increasingly difficult to fix anything. Simple parts now include sensors, firmware and identification stuff so that the "health" can be reported. Even changing or disconnecting the battery is fraught with danger and a panel of warning lights, some of which do disappear and others that don't. There is then a log of all sorts of "cleared" faults that are stored. The next time a dealer connects the diagnostic tool to the car, all these are sucked off and uploaded to the manufacturer.

    The fact that you cannot change something as basic as a battery without sophisticated technowizardry is just stupid.

    A modern car is now just a collection of computers on wheels and woe betide if some minor bit decides it is unhappy.

    1. IGotOut Silver badge

      Re: It is not just tech devices


      However you are moving things up. I've changed fuel sensors, knock sensors and many other "tech" with no problem. In fact with a laptop, the right cable and done cheap software, the car will tell you the faulty part.

      If they STOPPED you swapping those parts, then that would be an issue, but EU law stopped that many, many years ago.

      Of course, you can go back to the good old days, of getting you carbs set up, tuning, setting the timing belts, sticking a broken match stick behind the choke, bump starts, 20mpg, knackered points, broken distributors, putting foil over the radiator, waiting 20 minutes to pull off on a cold morning. Just don't mix cross ply and radials.

      Or you can just turn the key and off you go.

  11. Christopher O'Neill

    DIY car repairs

    We recently had to replace a faulty radio on a VW Golf. Being reluctant to pay VW £2,500 for a replacement, we sourced one second hand for £60 but then discovered that VW have a system in which the car's subsystems operate in a restricted mode if they are not the exact items fitted by VW at the factory. So the radio would switch on but would remain muted. Replacement heater controls will work for demisting windows but other climate functionality will be disabled. Other subsystems are similarly restricted.

    It meant that we had to pay VW another £70 to plug in their laptop and add the replacement radio to the car's list of authorised devices.

  12. Danny 2

    an operation that amounts to illegal math

    In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four?

  13. hayzoos


    The DMCA in the most basic concept of circumventing copyright protection could be tolerable, maybe. But, the concept has been so twisted and the scope has crept, nay, launched so far beyond protecting copyright that it must be terminated with prejudice.

    It's replacement has to place requirements on protection mechanisms to allow fair use, or it cannot be implemented. If a protection mechanism is found to be prohibiting fair use, then circumvention would be allowed. Any mechanism replacing one to have been found prohibiting fair use would have to be reviewed before being allowed to be implemented and would still be subject to possible circumvention allowance.

    Protection mechanisms have to actually be protecting copyright. Carrier lock on cellphones does not qualify, and would not be afforded protection from circumvention under the law. Creatively designing a product to place copyrighted material in the realm of non-copyright material does not qualify. So making an ink or toner cartridge "smart" so it's protection mechanism extends to the the consumable does not qualify. Any design found to be artificially creating a revenue stream due to placement of copyright does not qualify. This is only a start, I'm sure others can contribute excellent ideas of reasonable constraints for a copyright protection mechanism law.

    Copyright is important, but is has to be reasonable. Open source (which I prefer) depends on copyright to be able to enforce the source remaining open. Copyright allows creatives to earn a living, but extreme capitalism has twisted copyright to their benefit at the cost of creatives. It is this twisting that has brought us the DMCA in it's current form.

    I understand the concept of a manufacturer simplifying to reduce cost and using the same platform for both the base model and top end and everything in between. I do not agree with using "locked" settings to achieve this. You leave out hardware or substitute lesser hardware to differentiate. My truck is very basic with few extra features, but is has the same wiring harness of the top model. All I have to do is purchase the trailer brake controller and plug it in to add that functionality, as it should be. I do not have to hack the settings to enable an already present trailer brake controller, and worry about a DMCA violation.

    I have hacked (in the old MIT sense) the family coffee maker, some call it a Keurig, to use whatever coffee no matter how packaged, with or without a Keurig k-cup license, in any manner the machine can produce the beverage. I have sworn off any vehicle which required manufacturer permission to replace components non-essential to core functionality so the vehicle can remain functional. My main computer is over 10 years old, has had a few upgrades/replacements and still does most everything I need and/or want.

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