Tech

Copyright Office rules in favor of your right to repair your own phone

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Tinkerers will now have an easier time modifying and repairing electronic devices.

On Thursday, the US Copyright Office made some big changes to the legal exemptions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The changes will enable the repair community to legally fix, hack or modify people’s electronic devices. The new rules go into effect Sunday.

The Library of Congress is tasked with reviewing the DMCA every three years. The law was originally written to protect the movie industry from piracy. During the review process, the library spells out explicit exemptions, and this year it made several new exemptions to Section 1201.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Section 1201 made it illegal “to circumvent the computer code that prevents copying or modifying in most software-controlled products — which nowadays includes everything from refrigerators and baby monitors to tractors and smart speakers.” Some companies use copyrighted software or so-called digital locks to prevent consumers or independent repair people from making changes to devices.

iFixit founder Kyle Wiens, who petitioned the Library of Congress in April, explained in a blog post that under the new exemptions:

  • You can jailbreak voice assistant devices, such as Alexa-enabled gadgets.

  • You can unlock new phones, not just used ones. Recyclers sometimes get unopened phones.

  • It’s now legal to repair pretty much any kind of home device, such as smartphones, home appliances and home systems.

  • You can modify software on motorized land vehicles, like tractors.

  • Third-parties can repair devices on behalf of the owner.

This is good news for tinkerers, but some petitions weren’t granted, according to Wiens. You still can’t repair game consoles, such as the PS4 and Xbox One, on your own. Products that don’t fall under smartphones, home appliances or home systems, like boats and airplanes, also can’t legally be repaired by owners or third-parties.

“With those few exceptions, the Copyright Office went as far as they could in granting access to the repair community. There are still significant limits, though, that will need to be addressed by Congress,” wrote Wiens. For example, “now that circumvention is required to perform repairs, and most repairs benefit from tools, we need to open up a market for developing and selling those tools.”

The Copyright Office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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