We’ve written before about how copyright is chipping away at your right to own devices you’ve bought and paid for—from e-books to toasters and even your car. Time and again, people who want to modify their own property or sell it to others are told that they can’t, because their property comes saddled with copyrighted code they’re not allowed to modify or give away when they are done with the device.
At last, someone in Congress has noticed how “intellectual property rights” are showing up in unexpected places and undermining our settled rights and expectation about the things we buy. Today, Representative Farenthold announced the introduction of the You Own Devices Act (YODA). If a computer program enables a device to operate, YODA would let you transfer ownership of a copy of that computer program along with the device. The law would override any agreement to the contrary (like the one-sided and abusive End-User License Agreements commonly included with such software). Also, if you have a right to receive security or bug fixes, that right passes to the person who received the device from you.
It’s reassuring to see some pushback against abusive contract terms that consumers have no opportunity or leverage to negotiate. YODA is an important first step towards addressing the problem with restrictive licenses on embedded software.
Let’s hope it’s just the beginning. Legal fixes are also needed to protect digital first sale and the right to access and modify software in devices you own. First sale refers to the idea that you can re-sell or lend a copyrighted work that you obtained lawfully without needing the permission of the copyright owner. This is what lets you borrow a book or CD from a friend or library, buy used DVDs, and so on. Unfortunately, a federal district court in New York decided that first sale was too narrow to apply to digital music files in most normal circumstances. If other courts follow that ruling, we may need a legislative fix to preserve the ownership rights people have traditionally had when purchasing copyrighted works.
The right to access and modify software in your own devices is also under siege. Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibits you from breaking (or working around) digital locks on copyrighted works —including software—even if you own that copy of the work and the device on which it rests, even for lawful purposes such as fair use! This law has stifled security research, prevented people from tinkering and improving on technology, inhibited remix culture, and denied blind and deaf people access to knowledge and culture. Further examples abound.
So we have real work to do—but it’s great to see legislators taking important steps in the right direction. YODA is one such step, and we hope Congress goes on to restore these other rights of users who have purchased devices with embedded software and want to actually own them.