A Good Right to Repair Bill Would Not Break Things

Rep. Mondaire Jones (NY), along with co-sponsor Rep. Victoria Spartz (IN) introduced a bill in February called the Freedom to Repair Act. Seeking to remedy a specific, unintended consequence of one part of the Copyright Act, the bill overreaches so dramatically that it would effectively legalize piracy of creative works. If Congress wants to address unfair practices among certain manufacturers of machines and vehicles, the solution cannot be to remove copyright protections for authors, filmmakers, musicians, and other creators.

We all know that many domestic and commercial products are at least partly controlled by software. It has been years since anyone has taken a car to a mechanic without seeing it hooked up to a computer to obtain diagnostic data about the vehicle’s condition. And because software is protectable by copyright law, consumers of various products complain that manufacturers use enforcement of their copyright rights to maintain monopoly protection over replacement parts and repair processes necessary for maintenance.

While it is true that using copyright law to extend unreasonable, post-sale control over machines and vehicles can strain copyright’s core purpose to foster creative expression, the Freedom to Repair Act makes no distinction between the creative industry and the world of manufactured goods. Instead, the one-page bill simply upends DMCA Section 1201 of the Copyright Act—the section that prohibits circumventing digital rights management (DRM) tools (a.k.a. technical protection measures) used to prevent unlawful copying or distribution of protected material.[1]

The difficulty of course is that creative works are all converted into code so we can have products like eBooks and enjoy filmed entertainment or music via downloads or streaming services. The same Section 1201 that may be wrongly exploited by certain manufacturers is still predominantly doing the work of ensuring that creative material can be legally commercialized so that the professionals who produce these works are paid for their labor, skills, and expertise.

The Freedom to Repair Act is so broadly written that it would repeal Section 1201 without regard for the diverse range of economic activity it continues to foster. Reps. Jones and Spartz should be reminded that the creative industries contribute about $1.5 trillion to U.S. GDP, and Jones’s state of New York is one of the most vibrant creative markets in the country. If the congressman hopes to craft an effective right to repair bill, his office needs to hear from the many creative professionals in his state alone whose livelihoods increasingly depend on the provisions in Section 1201.

With the vast majority of us consuming most of our media through on-demand digital services, Section 1201 is more relevant than it was in 1998, when it was first adopted to encode material distributed in formats like DVDs. Meanwhile, the market continues to tempt opportunistic ventures hoping to develop new methods and new rationales for circumventing copyright law and exploiting creative works without license. The last thing the creative industries need is for Congress to clear a new path to legalized piracy.

I join those who endorse the spirit of a right to repair initiative, but the Freedom to Repair Act, as written, would allow the exception to overwhelm the rule and cause considerable and needless harm to millions of professionals who work in creative fields. Consequently, the bill is a disservice to the issue it proposes to address because it is justifiably going nowhere on Capitol Hill. If Rep. Jones et al. are serious about a federal right to repair law, they must meet with representatives of the creative industries and work to craft nuanced legislation that targets the issue at hand and does not carelessly fix things that ain’t broken.

[1] It should also be noted that complaints about a right to “jailbreak” various products often blame copyright law where regulations like environmental safety may be the underlying basis for the prohibition.

Photo source by: JGade_DK

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