What’s Inside That McDonald’s Ice Cream Machine? Broken Copyright Law

What’s Inside That McDonald’s Ice Cream Machine? Broken Copyright Law

It’s August. It’s hot. We’re all screaming for ice cream. But there’s a good chance that the exhausted McDonald’s crew is going to tell you the ice cream machine is broken.

At any given time, about 10% of McDonald’s ice cream machines are broken. This summer, we’re on a mission to fix that problem, in two big ways: We’re getting into the sticky insides of commercial ice cream machines and the US copyright law that makes them hard to fix. 

The brains of the whole ice cream operation.

Ice Cream Machine Meltdown

Did you know that when an ice cream machine is “broken,” it’s often just software getting in the way? Locked behind passwords and cryptic error messages, even a simple fix can become an expensive technician call-out.

Taylor, the manufacturer of these machines, keeps a tight lock on error codes and manuals. This leads to frequent, pricey service calls, making up a significant chunk of their profits

We’d love to be able to make a tool to read the error codes and help franchise owners troubleshoot their machines. But copyright law says “no.” 

For those of you who aren’t copyright law buffs: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has a section (1201) that makes it illegal to bypass software locks on devices, even to repair them. This might have made sense when it was all about CD piracy back in the day, but fast-forward to today, and it’s a straight-up brain freeze.

Let Us Fix Ice Cream

That’s why we’re teaming up with our friends at Public Knowledge to ask the Copyright Office to exempt ice cream machines from the DMCA (here’s their statement). 

Every three years, we get a chance to ask the Copyright Office to exempt equipment from the DMCA. We’ve won exemptions for everything from iPhones to tractors. But so far, ice cream machines have remained illegal to fix.

Getting this exemption request granted would let us do more with our machine: Instead of just taking it apart, we could also dig into the software. We could reverse engineer the error codes and figure out how to reset them.

But it still won’t solve the problem—most McDonald’s franchise owners aren’t hackers and won’t be able to figure out how to read and address the machine’s error codes on their own. 

A company named Kytch sought to provide a solution by developing a device that translated error codes into simple instructions. However, Taylor and McDonald’s quickly crushed this initiative, citing unproven “safety hazards.”

That’s why we tore down a McDonald’s ice cream machine.

Anatomy of a Sweet Treat

What did we find? Lots of easily replaceable parts: a heat exchanger with copper piping, a motor and belt, and three printed circuit boards… without some more tools, we aren’t going to mess with the big compressor, but there’s nothing here that’s beyond the pale for someone who knows their screwdrivers. 

Check out the full teardown video—because there’s nothing like ice cream with a side of (micro)chips.

Even if the copyright office agrees to grant the exemption request we filed today, we won’t be able to share with you what we find in the brains of our own machine unless we change copyright law altogether.

That’s why we’re also asking Congress to reintroduce the Freedom to Repair Act, which would make repair tools legal, too, permanently exempting all repair activities from Section 1201 of the DMCA. Until we get that full exemption, ice cream machine repair will stay broken.

We’re not just fighting for a smooth treat; we’re fighting for the right to fix things, the liberty of ownership, and… well, yeah, also for that smooth treat.

We at iFixit dream of a world where every McDonald’s ice cream craving ends in satisfaction. A world where soft serves are always on the menu, and devices are truly ours. Till then, keep your cones ready and your spirits high, because change is on the horizon, and it tastes a lot like a McFlurry.

Want to help? Find a repair advocacy organization near you to make your voice heard.