Consumer Rights

Things That Go Bump in the Copyright

We’re taking part in Copyright Week, a series of actions and discussions supporting key principles that should guide copyright policy. Every day this week, various groups are taking on different elements of the law—addressing what’s at stake and what we need to do to make sure that Copyright Law promotes creativity and innovation.

My first DIY iPhone repair was replacing the battery in my 6s. If I’m being honest, it was kinda terrifying. My hands got so sweaty that the driver kept slipping out of my fingertips. But I had to do it—a simple battery replacement is like a rite of passage around here. Despite my fear, the repair went off without a hitch. The whole thing took about 45 minutes (although, half that time was spent compulsively studying the repair guide, trying to muster up the courage to get started). But I did it.

I’m still using that same 6s—its been a reliable companion for two years. But when I updated my iOS to 10.2.1, it seemed like Pokemon Go was loading at Slowpoke pace. A week later, Apple fessed up to Batterygate and confirmed my suspicions. Turns out mine is one of the millions of iPhones that could use a battery replacement. No big deal for me: I know how to replace a battery. And I live in the smallest city in the world that has an Apple Store. No joke—if I had any aim—I could throw a rock out my apartment window and hit an Apple Genius upside the head. There’s that many of them.

copyright law makes phone repair legal
Look Ma, no hands! First DIY iPhone battery replacement on the books.

I have lots of options for repair. Other people, not so much. Due to demand, some iPhone owners have to wait until early April before Apple can swap out their battery.

Fancy you’re one of the 3 million people living in Kansas trying to get your phone serviced by the sole Apple Store in the state? Or, what if you live in a remote part of Canada (like this savage community member) and don’t want to mail away your iPhone for a few weeks? What’s an iPhone owner to do? Just keep waiting?

Barclays estimates that 519 million iPhone owners are eligible for Apple’s battery replacement program. Let’s (conservatively) say that 25% of eligible owners take advantage of Apple’s offer—that’s about 130 million iPhones. If it takes a Genius fifteen minutes to handle each customer, one Genius can do 160 iPhone battery replacements a week, which works out to 1,920 a year. Apple reportedly has 47,000 retail employees. So, if every employee was trained to do battery replacements and did nothing else—no lunch breaks, no potty time, no nothin’—it would take 1.4 years to clear out the backlog. By that time, more iPhones would need new batteries!

Apple can’t keep up with the demand. We need an army of fixers that Apple can’t offer—techs at mall kiosks, repair shops on the corner, and even your eccentric nephew who’s always taking stuff apart.

We need them. We need the right to repair our stuff. And we need to actively defend that right. If we don’t, we might lose it altogether.

Owners have rights. Licensees have permissions.

Until I came to iFixit, I’d never heard of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)—the law governing the intersection of technology and copyright. The DMCA was put in place to stop folks from pirating music, movies, and software programs. The law was designed to regulate the brave new world of digital content, awarding special copyright rules to digital creations.

But the law is outdated—it was passed in 1998. That’s the same year Google filed for incorporation, Apple introduced the iMac, and at that time, only 42% of households in the US had a computer. Technology has changed dramatically since then, but the DMCA has not. That’s no good—because once companies slap software into a physical object, the rules of ownership change. You’re no longer an owner. You’re a licensee.  

Today, electronics are embedded in just about everything we buy—umbrellas, pregnancy tests, hairbrushes. Everything is powered by tiny computers … and those computers are powered by software … and that software is copyrighted. So that smart hairbrush you bought your girlfriend (or yourself) for Christmas is protected by the same law that criminalizes music piracy. You don’t really own that hairbrush. The manufacturer does—because they own the software. So, if you think about it, software gets the same protections as A Farewell to Arms.

E-U-L-A, we don’t like you anyway!

The software in your device is governed by the terms of an End-User License Agreement (or EULA). We’ve all seen them—it’s that pop-up window packed with pages of dense legalese you encounter before using a new gadget, subscription service, or piece of software. They’re everywhere, and yet no one actually reads them. We mindlessly scroll right to the bottom and click, “I Agree”—unknowing of all the rights we just surrendered.

EULA’s bind consumers to a set of terms—and since those terms are set by the manufacturer, they’re never in the customer’s favor. When you check the box, lots of EULAs tell you not to take apart the device: the PS4, for example, bars its owners from using modified hardware with your PS4. EULA’s give manufacturers carte blanche to force you into whatever outrageous terms they want. Through these agreements, they’re stopping security research, killing competition, and preventing “unauthorized” repairs.

Beyonce says that girls run the world—and I agree with her. But when it comes to our stuff, really, it’s software that runs the world.

Death of a repairman

As more companies put digital locks over our gadgets, then—under the DMCA—they’ll be the only ones who can fix that stuff. They can sue anyone who tries to break up a repair monopoly, or anyone who’s shared their diagnostic codes.

With the powers of copyright law, the DMCA, and EULAs combined, manufacturers are doing a bang-up job of killing the non-OEM repair industry. Independent repair shops are going out of business. Technicians don’t have access to the diagnostic codes and manuals they need to do their jobs. Manufacturers are gouging consumers by charging a premium for repairs. And millions of people are waiting on Apple to get their iPhone battery replaced instead of fixing it themselves. (Apple, by the way, is actually lobbying against Right to Repair. If they had their druthers, only their authorized technicians could repair your phone—and you’d wait even longer for that battery replacement.)

When you buy something, you should own it. You should have the right to repair it yourself—or have the tech at the mall kiosk repair it, or your crazy nephew, or even the OEM. There’s enough broken stuff to go around so everyone can get their fix—including our broken copyright laws.