My trusty Xbox is out of warranty. Although it has been a real workhorse for many years, all that swapping of discs is eventually going to kill its optical drive. I’m a fixer, 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 year.
Fighting for the right to fix such problems has taken me down a decade-long rabbit hole of work on federal policy, including an obscure section of U.S. copyright law, Section 1201. It blocks the breaking of digital locks used to guard access to devices’ software. Cell phones, for example, are locked to the mobile carrier from which they were purchased, so if owners want to switch carriers, they first need to remove the baseband lock. But any product with a microcontroller has software, and such locks protect that software in everything from coffee machines to game consoles.
Unlocking 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 and encourages consumers to dispose of a machine instead of fixing it. This is bad for device owners, 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. With the iPhone 13, for instance, a digital lock pairs the screen to the device, and replacing a cracked screen will disable the critical Face ID feature. (Responding to criticism, Apple announced last November that it will make software and spare parts for repairing its products available to U.S. consumers sometime this year.) Similarly, John Deere refuses to provide farmers with the software they need to work on the electronics embedded in their equipment. Sony and Microsoft likewise withhold access to the tools required to repair new optical drives in game consoles.
In 2021 public demand induced at least 27 U.S. states to propose legislation for enabling repairs. These laws would require manufacturers to open up access to proprietary tools and parts and make service information and schematics available to consumers. States cannot fix copyright law, however: giving my Xbox a tune-up will have to be legalized at the federal level.
When Congress passed Section 1201 as part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998, its intent was to prevent DVD piracy. Legislators wrote the text quite broadly. As a result, anything with software and a digital lock falls under Section 1201—and any repairs that require the breaking of a digital lock are illegal. But there is an escape hatch: every three years you can petition for the right to break certain kinds of locks.
Last year a coalition that included iFixit, an online repair community that I co-founded, asked the U.S. Copyright Office to make fixing things by bypassing software locks legal. Hedging our bets, we 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. Thanks to these efforts, since October 28 it has been 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. But the new exemptions do not cover “modifications”—such as, say, changing the settings on your cat’s smart litter box—or nonconsumer devices such as laboratory equipment. And there is an even bigger catch: they do not allow the distribution of repair tools that circumvent manufacturers’ digital locks. According to Section 1201, the Copyright Office lacks the authority to grant permission to sell or distribute the necessary software. Without easy access to these tools, the new rules have no teeth. For example, if you want to repair your Xbox legally, you will have to whittle your own set of digital picklocks from scratch. That just does not scale—most gamers are not security engineers.
Clearly, the system is broken. It is 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.