US copyright determination adds new exceptions to circumventing TPMs, including repairing consumer devices

A new determination by the Librarian of Congress in the United States has declared repairing technology is not an infringement of technical protection measures (TPMs). Since the passing of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) Americans have not been able circumvent a TPM that controls access to copyright protected material.

Apple for example have a long history of aggressively ‘discouraging’ users and third-parties from repairing their devices. One example is their use of pentalobe screws which need a specific type of screwdriver to undo them. And their kill switches in MacBook Pros that ‘brick’ laptops not fixed by authorised repairers is another.

This new rule permitting individuals and third-party repair experts to fix and maintain lawfully acquired consumer electronics came into force on Sunday 28 October 2018. While it’s a win for right to repair advocates commentators have pointed out that the rule doesn’t address the practicalities of repairing most consumer devices such as accessing parts and tools to make repairs.

The determination renewed a number of existing rules and made a number of other changes. Here is a few of those them:

  • It extended the exemption for ‘jailbreaking’ to voice assistant devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home.
  • It extended the ability to ‘unlock’ a mobile phone or smartphone from the subscription service of its original telecommunications provider to tablets, mobile and wireless broadband hotspots and wearables.
  • Now eligible libraries, archives and museums can circumvent TPMs in lawfully acquired computer programs that are no longer reasonably commercially available in order to preserve them. And libraries, archives and museums can do the same in order to preserve a video game in a playable form where a copyright owner or its authorized representative no longer provides authentication to enable gameplay.
  • It makes it clear that security research is OK. Testing, investigation, and/or correction of a security flaw or vulnerability must be undertaken in good-faith on a lawfully acquired device in situations where harm to individuals or the public is avoided, where information gleaned is primarily to promote the security or safety of the class of devices being researched, or users of those devices and where no other law is violated.
  • The exemption to circumvent TPMs in video games also includes individuals maintaining access to games in their personal library.
  • Circumvention of a TPM that restricts the use of manufacturer-approved feedstock in 3D printers is now possible.

The new ‘Exemption to Prohibition on Circumvention of Copyright Protection Systems for Access Control Technologies’ came into force on Sunday 28 October 2018. It is based on the recommendation of the Register of Copyrights, who conducts the rule-making proceeding and consults with the Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and Information of the Department of Commerce and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

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