January 16, 2014 | By corynne mcsherry

You Bought It, You Own It! Time to Reclaim the Right to Use/Tinker/Repair/Make/Sell/Lend Your Stuff

In the week leading up the two-year anniversary of the SOPA blackout protests, EFF and others are talking about key principles that should guide copyright policy. Every day, we'll take on a different piece, exploring what’s at stake and and what we need to do to make sure the law promotes creativity and innovation. We've put together a page where you can read and endorse the principles yourself. Let's send a message to DC, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Brussels, and wherever else folks are making new copyright rules: We're from the Internet, and we're here to help.

You bought it, you own it, right?  Not always.  Over the past decade, we have been quietly shifting to a world in which both digital goods (like mp3s, video files, and ebooks) and physical goods that contain software (like cars, microwaves, and phones) are never truly owned, but only rented. 

Not to worry, say big copyright holders; people don’t want to be owners, because all they really care about is “access,” and more and more content is being made “accessible” in more and more ways.  Sure, you might have to pay a premium for the “privilege” of, say, watching the movie you “bought” on more than one device, but no one’s forcing you to do it. Besides, they tell policymakers, just give us more tools to punish unauthorized uses and we promise to build more “authorized” channels – as long as users are willing to pay for them.

There are a lot of reasons they are wrong.  Here's just a few:

First, most people have no idea that all they bought was a license. After all, the button they clicked on the Amazon site said "Buy," not "Rent."  Little do they know that Amazon has the right to (for example) remotely delete books from their library, without notice, at Amazon’s whim. Or that the holiday special they were planning to see might suddently become "unavailable."

Second, many users don’t just want to “access” content, they want to comment on it and use it in new and different contexts.  They want to view it or listen to it via devices and services that don't necessarily have the blessing of the copyright holder. They want to lend a book to a friend, or make a copy on the laptop they are bringing overseas, and they don’t think they should have to pay extra to exercise these basic consumer rights. They want to resell the music and books they are bored with, and use the money to buy new material. Some, like librarians, want to make copies in order to preserve, protect and share our cultural commons. 

Third, any notion that “access” is enough cannot possibly make sense when copyright law is inserting itself into arenas beyond movies, books, and music, such as devices. From phones to cars to refrigerators to farm equipment, software is helping your stuff work better and smarter, with awesome new features.  And that’s great . . . until it breaks and you want to fix it yourself (or take it to a local repair shop you trust). Or you think of a way to make it work even better that requires tinkering with the software (or some third party does).  Or you want to give it to a friend, or re-sell it. Then, you have a problem. Why? Because the license agreement attached to the software in that device (often called an “End User License Agreement” or "Terms of Service") is likely to restrict your ability to tinker with your stuff.  Typical clauses forbid reverse-engineering (i.e., figuring out how the software works so you can adapt it), transfer (i.e., giving it to a friend), and even using unauthorized repair sources at all.

Further complication: the software may come with digital locks (aka Digital Rights Management or DRM) supposedly designed to prevent unauthorized copying.  And breaking those locks, even to do something simple and otherwise legal like tinkering with or fixing your own devices, could mean breaking the law, thanks to Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

And then there’s repair-manual lockdown, which happens when manufacturers refuse to publish crucial repair information (including the manuals themselves, but also things like diagnostic codes for cars)—and then threaten to sue anyone else who tries to do so with a lawsuit for copyright infringement. 

The end result: fair uses are impeded, users are disempowered, trained to go hat in hand to the Apple store just to change a battery (rather than doing it themselves). Users are forced to make do with DRM-crippled devices that are fundamentally defective and compromise our security. Medical clinics must waste scarce resources on expensive repair contracts rather than patient care.  Independent repair shops are driven out of business.  And the electronic waste piles up, as users discard their devices rather then fixing them or donating them for re-use.

In 2005, Make magazine published the Maker’s Bill of Rights, also known as the Owner’s Manifesto.  As author Mr. Jalopy succinctly put it, “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”  These days, the question is not just whether you can open the hood – it’s whether opening the hood might land you in court.

Here’s the good news: there’s growing movement to defend your right to own your stuff – and to make sure ownership continues to mean something. Join us. 

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