Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA 1201) makes it illegal to get around any sort of lock that controls access to copyrighted material. Getting exemptions to that prohibitions is a long, complicated process that often results in long, complicated exemptions that are difficult to use. As part of our ongoing to effort to fight this law, we're presenting a series of science fiction stories to illustrate the bad effects DMCA 1201 could have.

It's been 20 years since Congress adopted Section 1201 of the DMCA, one of the ugliest mistakes in the crowded field of bad ideas about computer regulation. Thanks to Section 1201 if a computer has a lock to control access to a copyrighted work, then getting around that lock, for any reason is illegal. In practice, this has meant that a manufacturer can make the legitimate, customary things you do with your own property, in your own home or workplace, illegal just by designing the products to include those digital locks.

A small bit of good news: Congress designed a largely ornamental escape valve into this system: every three years, the Librarian of Congress can grant exemptions to the law for certain activities. These exemptions make those uses temporarily legal, but (here's the hilarious part), it's still not legal to make a tool to enable that use. It's as though Congress expected you to gnaw open your devices and manually change the software with the sensitive tips of your nimble fingers or something. That said, in many cases it's easy to download the tools you need anyway. We're suing the U.S. government to invalidate DMCA 1201, which would eliminate the whole farce. It's 2018, and that means it's exemptions time again! EFF and many of our allies have filed for a raft of exemptions to DMCA 1201 this year, and in this series, we're teaming up with some amazing science fiction writers to explain what's at stake in these requests.

This week, we're discussing our right to repair exemption. Did you know the innards of your car are copyrighted?

That's what the big auto manufacturers say, anyway. Since the dawn of the automotive industry, car owners could fix their cars themselves, or bring them to a mechanic of their choosing, from official, authorized mechanics to "shade-tree mechanics" who kept their motors going. But the auto industry says that once they added copyrighted software to their products, they could use copyright law to control who could fix them. All they have to do is design the engines so that the diagnostic information necessary to fix a car is scrambled, and then they get to invoke Section 1201 of the DMCA to anyone who descrambles that information without permission. They can even use this gimmick to design an engine that only accepts parts made by the original manufacturer—simply add a bit of software to do some cryptographic checking on the part's chips, and use DMCA 1201 threats to shut down anyone who makes a chip that can send the right codes to let you use someone else's part.

The use of DRM to threaten the independent repair sector is a bad deal all-around. Repair is an onshore industry that creates middle-class jobs in local communities, where service technicians help Americans get more value out of the devices they buy. It's not just cars: everything from tractors to printers, from toys to thermostats have been designed with DRM that stands in the way of your ability to decide who fixes your stuff, or whether it can be fixed at all. That's why we've asked the Copyright Office to create a broad exemption to permit repair technicians to bypass any DRM that gets in the way of their ability to fix your stuff for you.

Our friend John Scalzi was kind enough to write us a science fiction story that illustrates the stakes involved.

Right to Repair, by John Scalzi

“Winston Jones?”

“That’s me.”

“Hi, I’m Breanna, the mechanic that’s been looking at your car since it
got towed in. Bad luck, that.”

“Tell me about it. One minute I’m in the fast lane, the next I have to
swerve all the way across the freeway to get to the shoulder before I
get rammed by a semi.”

“Well, glad you made out of there alive. It made it easier for our tow
driver to get to you. So, Mr. Jones, I have some good news, and some
less good news.”

“What’s the good news?”

“The good news is that the only thing wrong with your car is a snapped
timing chain.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. And that’s lucky too. A snapped chain can do a lot of
damage. But the rest of your engine looks clean.”

“Well, hell. That’s the first piece of good news I’ve had all day. You
have timing chains here?”

“Yes, we do. But... well, Mr. Jones, that’s the less good news.”

“What is it?”

“We don’t have your specific car’s timing belt here.”

“Is there something unusual about it?”

“Not really. Your car manufacturer standardized them across most its
models. In fact, it’s pretty much exactly that one up on the wall over

“Well, just use that one, then.”

“I’d love to, but I can’t. You have the sport model of your car, and so
your manufacturer requires you to use the sport timing chain.”

“What’s the difference?”

“No difference, except they call it the ‘sport model.’ And they charge
$60 more for it.”

“So if it’s the same then you should just be able to use the one up there.”

“I’d love to. But the chains have a small RFID transmitter in them.”


“So if I put the wrong timing chain in, the car will know.”

“And then what?”

“Then it won’t start. Your information screen will tell you that you
need a different part. And then it will just sit there.”

“The car won’t work at all?”

“Well, you can run the radio. But it won’t move.”

“You’re telling me that you can’t use that timing chain, even though
it’s exactly the same as the one the car needs.”

“Pretty much.”

“Because I have the sport model.”


“Can’t you just lose the RFID chip?”

“Then it definitely won’t work. No chip, no ignition.”

“That can’t be legal.”

“It’s covered in the car’s EULA. You clicked through it the first time
you used the radio.”

“But it’s just a code in the chip, right? Can’t you download a working code from the internet and put it in any chip?”

“Technically? Yes. Easy as pie. Legally? No. They could pop me for $500,000 and five years in prison.”

“You’re joking.”

“Sir, I am most definitely not joking.”

“Fine. Can you get the sport timing chain?”



“In three weeks.”


“Back order. I mean, probably three weeks? We’re in a trade war. The
timing chains are made in Asia. They’re in a cargo ship in Hong Kong,
waiting clearance to come over.”

“So I can’t drive my car for three weeks because of a stupid timing chain.”

“We could tow the car to a dealer. They might have a sport chain. The
closest dealer that can service this particular model is three counties
away. But I’d call first to make sure they have it. Otherwise we’ll have
towed you all that way for nothing, and you’ll still have to pay us.”

“I kind of need this car to work today.”

“I know, Mr. Jones. And when we get the part, it’ll be literally a
twenty-minute fix.”

“Twenty minutes and three weeks, you mean.”

“Probably three weeks. Maybe longer.”

“I need a drink.”

“We do have coffee, Mr. Jones.”

“Well, that’s something.”

“It’s decaf.”


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