The US Copyright Office just struck a blow supporting the right to repair

The US Copyright Office is expanding a legal shield for fixing digital devices, including cars and medical devices. This morning, the office submitted new exemptions to Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which bars breaking software copy protection. The resulting rules include a revamped section on device repair, reflecting renewed government pressure around “right to repair” issues.

The Register of Copyrights recommends Section 1201 “anti-circumvention” exemptions every three years, a process that has offered legal protections for everything from unlocking cellphones to ripping DVD clips for classroom use. In addition to renewing these and several other exemptions, this latest rulemaking adopts repair-related proposals from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, iFixit, and other organizations. The Librarian of Congress adopted the recommendations in a final rule that will take effect tomorrow.

The exemptions replace an itemized list of repairable devices with broad protections for any consumer devices that rely on software to function, as well as land and sea vehicles and medical devices that aren’t consumer-focused. The rulemaking doesn’t rewrite the exemption to cover all non-consumer devices, and it doesn’t cover all “modification,” only “diagnosis, maintenance, and repair.” For video game consoles specifically, repair only covers repairing the device’s optical drives and requires reenabling any technological protection measures that were circumvented afterward.

“The petitioners did a good job of showing commonalities across different types of devices,” said Acting General Counsel Kevin Amer on a phone call with reporters. “We also are aware of some of the efforts that the executive branch has undertaken in this area,” including an executive order from the Biden administration supporting third-party and consumer repair work. “We do think that this exemption will be useful and will help to facilitate that type of activity.”

Other agencies — as well as state and federal lawmakers — have their own right to repair policies on the table. The Federal Trade Commission, for instance, has pledged to fight business practices that lock out independent repair shops. This copyright rulemaking doesn’t address those practices, but it helps lift a legal threat hanging over technicians and consumers.

Right to repair expansion sits alongside several other changes. The Copyright Office nixed some requests to expand an exemption for reproducing clips of movies and TV shows, for instance, but it supplemented the categories of people who can do this for educational use, covering education staff beyond faculty members.

The rule extends exemptions for converting video to accessible formats for people with disabilities, letting educators add subtitles or audio captions before someone requests an accessible version as long as they reasonably expect it will be needed. Video game players with disabilities can also circumvent systems that prevent them from using nonstandard input devices on computers, although the exemptions don’t add some broader requested accessibility protections.

Meanwhile, archival libraries should be able to create copies of deteriorating disc-based media if they can’t find a replacement copy elsewhere. (The office rejected requests that people be able to break copy protection to shift media into different formats, however.) The report expands the language of an exemption for security researchers as well.

The new policy loosens a 2015 exemption granting access to medical device data, rewording it to cover devices that aren’t implanted and letting patients authorize third parties to access it, although some methods of access could still violate liability laws. It also grants jailbreaking exceptions for video streaming devices like the Apple TV and for routers and other networking hardware, as long as it’s not done to access pirated media.

Section 1201 remains a controversial (and, some critics contend, unconstitutional) piece of the DMCA. It’s intended to prevent breaking digital rights management software that protects copyrighted media, but as software becomes an increasingly important part of basic consumer devices, it’s cast a legal pall over myriad non-piracy-related activity. The renewal cycle also means that educators, security researchers, repair technicians, and others will go through this process again in a few years — but for now, they’ve seen some welcome changes.