Is repairing your mobile phone copyright infringement?

Is repairing your mobile phone copyright infringement?

Copyright law grants the author of a new creative work the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, transmit the work and make derivative works based on the original.  Computer software is treated as a literary under United States copyright law.  Copyright law was written long before inventions such as computers and the internet.  Before these technological marvels became house hold appliances, it was very difficult to infringe on copyright.  Copyright infringement before computers was possible but it required specialized equipment to reproduce copyrighted works and cost money to distribute the works via mail or trucks.  Computers and the internet made it trivial to copy a file which contains a copyrighted work and transmit the file across the world through the internet.

Digital rights management software is a method copyright owners use to protect their works from unauthorized reproduction and distribution.  Digital rights management software can be used prevent the copying of copyright works which are stored as a file on a computer, such as pictures, videos, songs and computer software.  Digital rights management helps prevent causal users from copying and sharing copyrighted works, but like any lock, digital rights management can be broken.  Once a digital rights management system is broken the copyrighted works are no longer protected.

To help copyright owners that protect their works with digital rights management software, the United States Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998.  The purpose of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was to update United States copyright law and address some of the copyright law issues presented by the computers and the internet.  One of the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act specifically addressed digital rights management software.

17 U.S.C. Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibits the circumvention of digital rights management software and distributing tools that are intended to circumvent such systems.  This section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was a great win for copyright owners of media because it would help combat piracy of their works, but it was quickly applied in ways that Congress might not have intended.

Manufacturers began applying Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to all devices which use software to operate.   Consumers that modified their cars or cellphones where threatened with litigation under Section 1201 by the device manufacturers, under the theory that modification of the software that operates the device was circumventing the digital rights management software which protected the device’s software from copying.  For instance if a farmer wanted to modify or replace the transmission on their tractor, the fact that the transmission communicates with the tractor’s computer forced the farmer to buy a transmission from the tractor manufacturer or risk a copyright infringement lawsuit.  Unlocking a cellphone so it can operate on a cell network other than the one it was originally programmed to operate on was also something which could run afoul of Section 1201.  This legal theory was troublesome because consumers that legitimately purchased a device were now being prevented from modifying or repairing their device.

Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act does provide a method for the public to request specific exemptions be granted by the copyright office.  This year the Copyright Office was petitioned by a number of consumer interest groups and Copyright Office granted some exemptions to Section 1201.  The Copyright Office’s ruling, which takes effect October 28th 2018, gives consumers increased ability to modify and repair product which they have purchase.  There is now a general exemption for the repair of smartphones, consumer appliances and land vehicles, including tractors.  The ruling also allows third party repair services to perform repairs for consumers without violating Section 1201.

The ruling by the United States Copyright Office does not address all the issues brought to its attention, but does remove the fear that repairing a legitimately purchased device will result in a copyright infringement lawsuit.

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