In a groundbreaking move, the Library of Congress and US Copyright Office have proposed new rules that will give consumers the ability to legally hack the DRM of electronic devices to repair or maintain those devices. The devices these proposed rules would cover and legalize the hacking of include smartphones, voice assistants, tractors, cars, smart home appliances, and other devices.
These proposed rules will be a major win for the right to repair movement. Devices that can be legally hacked would have to be "lawfully acquired" meaning that the proposed rules wouldn't make it legal to hack the DRM of stolen devices. Rules would also stipulate that the hacking of DRM is legal only for "maintenance" and "repair" of the devices. Rules allowing the hacking of DRM introduced in 2015 applied to tractors used by farmers only.
The proposed rules allow the breaking of DRM and 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." The U.S. Copyright Office makes new copyright rules every three years, and then the rules are official when the Librarian of Congress puts the rules into place. Once in place, the rules are exemptions to section 1201 of U.S. copyright law.
These new rules mean software locks such as the one Apple put into place for recent MacBooks meant to brick laptops with third-party repairs are legal to circumvent; bypassing the software can be a challenge. With rules making it legal to bypass DRM, but not making it illegal for companies to use DRM to prevent third-party repairs, device makers now have a reason to make DRM harder to bypass. The new rules do nothing to address the other ways device makers prevent repairs, such as making required tools and parts hard or impossible to come by. Right to repair advocates are still pushing for rules at the state level to force these parts, tools, and bypasses to be easier to access and utilize by device owners. Making it legal to defeat these software locks and DRM is a good first step toward making it easy for owners to repair their own devices.