While Congress is working on legislation to re-legalize cellphone unlocking, let’s acknowledge the real issue: The copyright laws that made unlocking illegal in the first place. Who owns our stuff? The answer used to be obvious. Now, with electronics integrated into just about everything we buy, the answer has changed.
We live in a digital age, and even the physical goods we buy are complex. Copyright is impacting more people than ever before because the line between hardware and software, physical and digital has blurred.
The issue goes beyond cellphone unlocking, because once we buy an object — any object — we should own it. We should be able to lift the hood, unlock it, modify it, repair it … without asking for permission from the manufacturer.
But we really don’t own our stuff anymore (at least not fully); the manufacturers do. Because modifying modern objects requires access to information: code, service manuals, error codes, and diagnostic tools. Modern cars are part horsepower, part high-powered computer. Microwave ovens are a combination of plastic and microcode. Silicon permeates and powers almost everything we own.
This is a property rights issue, and current copyright law gets it backwards, turning regular people — like students, researchers, and small business owners — into criminals. Fortune 500 telecom manufacturer Avaya, for example, is known for suing service companies, accusing them of violating copyright for simply using a password to log in to their phone systems. That’s right: typing in a password is considered “reproducing copyrighted material.”
Manufacturers have systematically used copyright in this manner over the past 20 years to limit our access to information. Technology has moved too fast for copyright laws to keep pace, so corporations have been exploiting the lag to create information monopolies at our expense and for their profit. After years of extensions and so-called improvements, copyright has turned Mickey Mouse into a monster who can never die.
It hasn’t always been that way. Copyright laws were originally designed to protect creativity and promote innovation. But now, they are doing exactly the opposite: They’re being used to keep independent shops from fixing new cars. They’re making it almost impossible for farmers to maintain their equipment. And, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks, they’re preventing regular people from unlocking their own cellphones.
This isn’t an issue that only affects the digerati; farmers are bearing the brunt as well. Kerry Adams, a family farmer in Santa Maria, California, recently bought two transplanter machines for north of $100,000 apiece. They broke down soon afterward, and he had to fly a factory technician out to fix them.
Because manufacturers have copyrighted the service manuals, local mechanics can’t fix modern equipment. And today’s equipment — packed with sensors and electronics — is too complex to repair without them. That’s a problem for farmers, who can’t afford to pay the dealer’s high maintenance fees for fickle equipment.
Adams gave up on getting his transplanters fixed; it was just too expensive to keep flying technicians out to his farm. Now, the two transplanters sit idle, and he can’t use them to support his farm and his family.
God may have made a farmer, but copyright law doesn’t let him make a living.
Neighborhood car mechanics also see copyright as a noose constricting their ability to fix problems. The error codes in your car? Protected. The diagnostic tools used to access them? Proprietary software.
New cars get more sophisticated every year, and mechanics need access to service information to stay in business. Under the cover of copyright law, auto companies have denied independent shops access to the diagnostic tools and service diagrams they need.
Mechanics aren’t taking it lying down. In September of last year, Massachusetts passed Right to Repair legislation designed to level the playing field between dealerships and independent repair shops. Under the rallying cry of “it’s your car, you should be able to repair it where you want,” voters passed the bill by a whopping 86 percent margin. The law circumvents copyright, requiring manufacturers to release all service information to Massachusetts car owners and service technicians. The popular unrest is spreading: Legislators in Maine just introduced similar legislation.
Meanwhile, progress is being made to legalize cellphone unlocking. With grassroots groups leading the charge, the Obama administration announced its support for overturning the ban last week. Since then, members of Congress have authored no fewer than four bills to legalize unlocking.
This is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. Let’s make one thing clear: Fixing our cars, tractors, and cellphones should have nothing to do with copyright.
As long as Congress focuses on just unlocking cellphones, they’re missing the larger point. Senators could pass a hundred unlocking bills; five years from now large companies will find some other copyright claim to limit consumer choice. To really solve the problem, Congress must enact meaningful copyright reform. The potential economic benefits are significant, as free information creates jobs. Service information is freely available online for many smartphones from iFixit (my organization) and other websites. Not coincidentally, thousands of cellphone repair businesses have sprung up in recent years, using the repair knowledge to keep broken cellphones out of landfills.
As long as we’re limited in our ability to modify and repair things, copyright — for all objects — will discourage creativity. It will cost us money. It will cost us jobs. And it’s already costing us our freedom.
This article was also published with Wired.