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‘Right-to-repair’ advocates claim major victory in new smartphone copyright exemption

From left are the iPhone XS, iPhone XR, and the iPhone XS Max. (Richard Drew/AP)

The Librarian of Congress and the U.S. Copyright Office have granted American consumers and gadget repair shops greater freedom to fix their smartphones and other popular electronics in what “right-to-repair” advocates are calling a major victory.

In a new ruling that will take effect Sunday, the Librarian of Congress has carved out exemptions that allow people to legally circumvent digital “locks” on devices they own, such as voice assistants, tablets, smartphones and vehicles, to repair them. Motherboard earlier reported on the ruling.

Device manufactures use digital protection measures to safeguard their intellectual property. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 made it unlawful to circumvent technological measures used to prevent the piracy of copyrighted books, movies, video games and computer software.

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The digital locks are intended to prevent the theft of intellectual property and to keep consumers from compromising their electronics, thereby preserving the integrity and security of a device’s operating system, industry groups have argued.

But consumer advocates contend that the prohibition against tinkering robs consumers of the right to fix their broken property and exposes users and repair professionals to the risk of violating copyright law simply by altering the software inside the devices that the users own.

The new exemption “establishes that you have a legal right to repair something that you own and that does not infringe upon the copyright protection afforded to the manufacturer,” said Nathan Proctor, the director of the campaign for the right to repair, at the public interest group U.S. PIRG.

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The exemptions permit customers to unlock their smartphones and get around restrictions built into other mainstream devices, including smart home assistants, said Kyle Wiens, founder of iFixit. In a blog post outlining the key freedoms granted by the ruling, Wiens said third-party repair shops are now legally allowed to fix smartphones on an owner’s behalf, which he said was “hugely important” for the aftermarket economy.

Proctor said the ruling is a step forward in grappling with the problem of unrepairable electronics, which contributes to tremendous amounts of waste. But he added that right-to-repair proponents want more robust tools to help consumers. Consumer advocates have pushed for legislation to compel device manufacturers to share instructional manuals and diagnostic tools to help consumers and repair experts fix devices.

“It’s encouraging to know we have a legally protected right to fix the stuff we buy,” but much more can be done to change the country’s “throwaway system” to one where devices last as long as possible, Proctor said.

The Librarian of Congress and the Copyright Office did not grant exceptions for video game console repairs, according to Wiens, and while “motorized land vehicles” were included in the exemptions, boats and airplanes were not.

The Copyright Office holds a rulemaking process every three years to review potential exemptions to the rules against circumventing digital access controls.