Why You Might Need to Hire a Small Army of Lawyers Just to Fix Your Tractor

Let's say you own a tractor built in the 21st century, one that depends on a computer to handle some of its operations, and something goes wrong -- and you try to fix it on your own. You'd be surprised to find that it's not a matter of just figuring out what's wrong -- in one case it required dozens of lawyers, loads of paperwork, official hearings, and a year wait.


If you thought all you needed was a toolbox, you’ll be amazed to read a new piece at Slate by Kyle Wiens, a repairman and software engineer. Wiens explains why fixing contraptions with computers has become such a headache in recent years, specifically citing the anti-circumvention section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Thanks to the “smart” revolution, our appliances, watches, fridges, and televisions have gotten a computer-aided intelligence boost. But where there are computers, there is also copyrighted software, and where there is copyrighted software, there are often software locks. Under Section 1201 of the DMCA, you can’t pick that lock without permission. Even if you have no intention of pirating the software. Even if you just want to modify the programming or repair something you own.

When a friend of Wiens asked if he could help tweak the copyright software on his busted tractor, Wiens knew it would be an arduous battle. The only way to work around the DMCA’s regulations against software altering was to get an exemption. The proceeding that would allow such a thing only takes place once every three years and requires an army of copyright lawyers. As Wiens writes:

Regular people can’t hire an army of copyright lawyers. The financial burden would be crippling. The only people who have enough money to participate in the process are the people trying to defeat the exemptions in the first place. Almost every exemption, including security research for vehicles and DVD ripping for educational uses, was met with opposition from the well-funded, well-lawyered Big Copyright interests—the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Entertainment Software Association, and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

As Wiens writes, the process is heavily stacked in favor of the copyright interests. He explains how people are caught in a massive catch-22 if they even reach that part of the process: “In order to meet the standard for relevance, they need to show that there’s overwhelming market demand if only it were legal. But in order to argue they are practicing fair use, they have to admit to already breaking these locks, and therefore the law.”

Wiens’ piece calls for a leveling of the playing field and, at the very least, a removal of the exemption laws that currently cripple such work:

Let’s make these exemptions less restrictive and shift the burden of proof a little. Instead of making supporters go to extreme lengths to show that an exemption is absolutely necessary, how about asking the opposition to show that an exemption is absolutely unnecessary? At the very least, Congress should remove the expiration date on exemptions. Once granted, exemptions should be permanent.

You can read Wiens entire piece at Slate.

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