Right-to-repair smartphone ruling loosens restrictions on industrial, farm IoT

Forget smartphones — the U.S. Copyright Office’s new DRM exemptions could be a big deal for farmers and other heavy equipment operators and vendors.

farmer tractor
skeeze (CC0)

Last week, the tech press made a big deal out of a ruling by the Librarian of Congress and the U.S. Copyright Office to allow consumers to break vendors’ digital rights management (DRM) schemes in order to fix their own smartphones and digital voice assistants. According to The Washington Post, for example, the ruling — which goes into effect Oct. 28 — was a big win for consumer right-to-repair advocates. 

Big news for vehicles

That promises to save millions of consumers some coin, but it may have a far bigger impact on a much smaller cohort: farmers, construction companies, fleet managers and other companies that now have legal permission to fix their motorized land vehicles (cars, tractors, and so on — owners of boats and airplanes are still out of luck).

As I noted in a Network World post earlier this year, many farmers have been struggling to get full benefits of the IoT technology built into their tractors because of restrictions written into their end-user license agreements (EULA). That can limit their use of the information generated about their own farming practices and also keep them from repairing their own equipment without calling in the vendor, as noted by Motherboard. The most publicized issue comes from John Deere, which argued that letting farmers fix their own equipment could lead to music piracy (no, not a joke).

Also on Network World: Big trouble down on the IoT farm

The new ruling may not give farmers ownership of their farming data, but at least they now have the right to ignore the DRMs and fix their own machines — or to hire independent repair services to do the job — instead of paying “dealer prices” to the vendors’ own repair crews.

Per Motherboard, the new ruling “allows breaking digital rights management (DRM) and embedded software locks for ‘the maintenance of a device or system … in order to make it work in accordance with its original specifications’ or for ‘the repair of a device or system … to a state of working in accordance with its original specifications.’”

Only a partial victory in the war on DRM

From my perspective, this is indeed a win, but far from a complete victory. Farmers still aren’t allowed to hack into their own tractors to turn them into drag racers (that might be fun to watch!), but at least they can do whatever they need to do in order to make sure the machines aren’t falling down on the job.

That’s a good start, but it still doesn’t make sense to restrict legitimate device and equipment owners from making full use of the products they’ve paid for. As software and IoT capabilities worm their way into just about everything, antiquated rules like this — based on the widely reviled Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) — reduce the value and utility of the products they encumber, sow (often justified) distrust of the vendors, and threaten to hobble the growth of the IoT market, all in service of maximizing short-term service revenue for a handful of vendors. DRM advocates — yes, they exist — claim that it helps stop IP theft and avoid compromising the equipment. But given silly arguments like John Deere’s music-piracy shenanigans, that logic can strain credulity.

Legal, but not necessarily possible

Perhaps even more important in the real world, this ruling doesn’t necessarily make getting around DRM restrictions easy, or even possible. Many vendors work very hard to make it as difficult as possible for anyone but authorized repair services to work on their products. The ruling just makes it legal to try to hack through DRMs in order to conduct repairs — it doesn’t guarantee that effort will be successful.

This approach is dangerously shortsighted. Here’s hoping that this Copyright Office ruling sparks a major rethink of the rights and obligations of equipment buyers and sellers and results in a legal framework that promotes innovation and industriousness, not restrictions and control. But I’m not holding my breath.

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