My trusty Xbox is out of warranty. Although it has been a real workhorse for many years, all that time swapping discs is eventually going to kill its optical drive. I’m a fixer, though, and if the disc drive failed in a different kind of product, I could easily repair it by installing a new part. But this particular fix is beyond hard—it is illegal. Or at least it was until late last month.
Fighting for the right to fix such problems has taken me down a decade-long rabbit hole of working on federal policy, including an obscure section of U.S. copyright law, Section 1201, which effectively makes doing certain kinds of math illegal. Specifically, it blocks the breaking of so-called technological protection measures (TPM), digital locks used to guard access to devices’ software. A cell phone, for example, is locked to the mobile carrier from which it was purchased, so if the owner wants to switch carriers, they first need to remove the baseband lock. But TPMs go beyond phones: any product with a microcontroller has software, and these locks protect that software in everything from coffee machines to game consoles.
Solving the problems with Section 1201 is an essential part of the broader right to repair movement, which aims to combat the measures that make it difficult or impossible to improve or fix electronics. Limiting the ability to repair a broken device destroys independent repair shops, drives up the price of repairs and encourages consumers to dispose of a machine instead of fixing it. This is bad for device owners and the economy, and it contributes to the rising tide of electronic waste around the world.
The proposed solution is simple: create an ecosystem of professional and do-it-yourself fixers by removing the obstacles to repair that many manufacturers have built into their products. These measures make it difficult for anyone not affiliated with the company to perform repairs. With the new iPhone 13, for instance, a digital lock pairs the iPhone screen to the device. This means that replacing a cracked screen will disable the critical Face ID feature. Farmers are accustomed to using a wrench on their tractors, but John Deere refuses to provide them with the software that they need to work on the electronics embedded in their equipment. Sony and Microsoft similarly withhold access to the tools needed to pair new optical drives in game consoles.
In response, legislative proposals to restore access to repairs are sweeping the country, with at least 27 states proposing laws on repair limitations so far this year. These laws would require manufacturers to open up proprietary tools, stop restricting access to parts, and make service information and schematics available to consumers. States, however, cannot fix copyright law, which means that legalizing the tool to tune-up my Xbox will have to happen at the federal level.
When Congress passed Section 1201 as part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act back in 1998, its intent was to prevent DVD piracy. Congresspeople wrote the text quite broadly, hoping that it would adapt to new technologies. As a result, the potential application space is incredibly vast—anything with software and a digital lock falls under Section 1201, which means any repairs that require the breaking of a digital lock are illegal. But the drafters were thoughtful enough to build in an escape hatch: every three years you can petition for the right to break certain kinds of locks. So every three years I have gathered a ragtag band of fixers to apply for exemptions.
Last year my team—which included iFixit (the online repair community that I co-founded), the Repair Association (an advocacy group co-founded by iFixit that I am a member of) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation—asked the U.S. Copyright Office to make fixing things by bypassing software locks legal. Hedging our bets, we at iFixit and right-to-repair supporter Public Knowledge also asked for a more specific exemption: working around antipiracy schemes when replacing the disc drives on video game consoles such as Xboxes and PlayStations.
Just at the end of last month, the Copyright Office issued the latest batch of rules in response to our petition. Effective October 28, it is now legal to break locks for the purposes of “diagnosis, maintenance, and repair” on any “software-enabled device that is primarily designed for use by consumers,” as well as on vehicles, marine vessels and medical devices. This is a big win. iFixit and other advocates have been asking for broad repair exemptions from copyright protections for more than a decade.
Unfortunately, the new exemptions don’t cover “modifications” such as, say, changing the settings on your cat’s smart litter box. They also don’t cover nonconsumer devices such as laboratory equipment or industrial systems. And there is one even bigger catch: the rule does not allow you to distribute repair tools that circumvent manufacturers’ digital locks. This is because, according to Section 1201, the Copyright Office lacks the authority to grant permission to sell or distribute the software required to unlock digital locks. Without the ability to buy such repair tools, these new rules have no teeth. For example, if you want to repair your Xbox legally, you’re going to have to whittle your own set of digital lockpicks from scratch. That just doesn’t scale—most gamers are not security engineers.
It’s clear that this system is fundamentally broken. Every three years advocates for fair repair and digital rights must ask for new, narrow exemptions and request that all the previous exemptions be upheld. The freedom to tinker is being held up by a tenuous thread that could be severed at will—for example, at one time, the Copyright office made a unilateral decision not to extend an exception for cell phone unlocking, thus making it illegal, before Congress repealed the decision in 2014.
These limited exemptions show that it’s time for Congress to step in and permanently exempt repair, and especially repair tools, from Section 1201. I hope they get it done before my Xbox needs a fix.