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DRM-Locked Devices Becoming Legal to Repair

(Image credit: Oomka/Shutterstock)

The Librarian of Congress and the U.S. Copyright Office have proposed new exceptions, effective October 28, to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) law that would allow both consumers and professionals to “hack” electronics that use digital rights management (DRM) to lock users from repairing them.

Hacking DRM-Locked Devices

The Librarian of Congress has expanded consumers’ rights to hack DRM-locked devices for the purpose of repair and maintenance. The list of devices includes smartphones, tractors, cars, smart home appliances and many other devices.

The Librarian of Congress is able to propose exceptions to the DMCA because Congress couldn’t foresee all the unintended consequences when it passed the DMCA. The Librarian of Congress has exercised its right over the past few years to add exceptions to the DMCA, such as the previous exception that made it legal for consumers to unlock their smartphones and for tractor owners to repair their purchased vehicles.

A Win for “Right to Repair” Activists

Over the past few years, we’ve seen many consumer devices, and even vehicles, that have adopted DRM as a way of stopping consumers from making changes, such as repairing the devices themselves or replacing a component or consumable item from competitors. This trend created a push-back from consumer groups, which have asked the U.S. Copyright Office and the Librarian of Congress to add exemptions to the DMCA that would prevent manufacturers from abusing the copyright law in this way.

The Librarian of Congress passes such exemptions only every three years, and the existing ones also have to be renewed at the same time. However, future Librarians of Congress may stop renewing some of these exceptions, which is why consumer activists would have kept fighting for state and federal "Right to Repair" laws that explicitly gives consumers the right to repair their own purchased devices and would prevent companies from blocking consumers’ attempts to repair those devices.

Right now, even with this exemption, companies can still put up technical roadblocks to make it difficult for consumers to make those changes and repair the devices, even if it’s now legal for consumers to repair their own devices. As such, this "fix" may only be a temporary one until companies learn to more effectively lock down their devices.

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.