Copyright is impacting our lives in more and more ways. Passed in 1998, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act was supposed to update antiquated copyright laws to cope with the digital era. But unintended side effects are putting a damper on your property rights.


Originally published in Wired, this essay by right to repair advocate Kyle Wiens explains the crisis facing electronics owners.

In 2014, Congress grappled with legislation to re-legalize cellphone unlocking, but 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.

You Bought it, You Own It

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.”

Corrupting Copyright

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.

This isn’t an issue that only affects the digerati.

God may have made a farmer, but copyright law doesn’t let him make a living.

Electronics = Copyright

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.

Fixing our cars, tractors, and cellphones should have nothing to do with copyright.

Fighting Back

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.