When he was a freshman in the Cal Poly dorms back in the early 2000s, Kyle Wiens’ laptop went on the fritz.
Being a resourceful guy, he started trying to fix the machine, but there was a major problem: There were no laptop repair instructions or manuals anywhere to be found.
“I thought that was weird, but I tried it anyway, and I kind of botched the repair—that computer was never the same afterwards,” Wiens recalled. “Later, I found out that computer manufacturers target anyone who posts repair manuals online by sending threatening legal notices.
“Basically, they’re using copyright as a bludgeon to prevent people from knowing how to fix their stuff,” he said. “That makes me mad.”
As it turns out, Wiens parlayed that long-ago frustration into co-founding a thriving San Luis Obispo-based company—iFixit—that produces and curates open-source repair manuals online and retails parts.
When he’s not tinkering or repairing, Wiens is probably writing, testifying, or advocating in his other role: as a vociferous crusader for reforming national copyright law or, as he puts it, “making it easier for people to fix things.”
Wiens and iFixit have gotten results, too. He advocated in D.C. for the “Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act,” which was eventually signed into law in August 2014 and made it (temporarily) legal for consumers to “unlock” cell phones.
Cell phones have been one of the major battlefields in the overall copyright law war. Essentially, Wiens and his legion of compatriots are objecting to a specific portion (Section 1201) of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). That section makes it illegal to breach a technological barrier that protects copyrighted content, and such barriers are often referred to as digital rights management, or DRM.
“When they were negotiating copyright law back in the ’90s, they mainly wanted to prevent people from illegally copying DVDs and that copyrighted content,” Wiens explained. “The problem is that the DMCA is ambiguous and people back then didn’t foresee what we have now—which is practically every single product containing copyrighted material, in the form of software.”
As formerly analog equipment like washing machines, vehicles, and even coffee makers become increasingly digital and computer-rich, it’s often illegal or impossible to bypass DRM by repairing, modifying, or tinkering with equipment unless authorized by the manufacturer or granted a legal exemption (as with unlocking cell phones).
While some stakeholders argue that DRM is necessary to fight copyright infringement and protect content creators, Wiens and many others counter that DRM stifles innovation, enables monopolies, and tramples on ownership rights.
“Basically, it’s about deciding at what point the right of a company to produce something supersedes the right of the person who bought it to use it as they please,” said Jeff Buckingham, president of SLO-based Norcast Telecom Networks and a supporter of iFixit. “It’s tricky, but it’s a day-to-day freedom issue we all need to think about.”
Most recently, iFixit and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (a nonprofit digital rights group) launched a campaign to “fix” the DMCA by repealing Section 1201 and restoring the right to bypass DRM. An “ask me anything” event hosted by the two organizations on the social media site Reddit went viral, and ended up netting 40,755 public comments that iFixit forwarded to the U.S. Copyright Office on Feb. 7.
“iFixit sent those comments to the Copyright Office at the rate of one comment per second. The process took us over 11 hours. We’ll eat our fez if that’s not the most comments the Copyright Office has ever received for a DMCA review,” iFixit employee Julia Bluff wrote on the company’s blog on Feb. 10.
Under the DMCA, the Copyright Office is obligated to review proposed DRM exemptions every three years, and 2015 is one of those years. In a frustrating twist, the office can also reverse exemptions it has previously granted.
There are 27 exemptions under consideration this year, including proposals to legalize tinkering with items including 3-D printers, music recording software, e-books, and video game consoles.
“It’s actually rather expensive and complicated to propose these exemptions, so we’re hoping people will see how ridiculous this process is and ask Congress to repeal Section 1201 completely,” Wiens said. “It’s a money versus people conflict, as usual, because big companies that benefit from DRM don’t want that kind of reform.”
Tom Lebens, a SLO-based intellectual property attorney, told New Times that whether copyright law reformers choose to target the executive, judicial, or legislative branch as their means of change, the process will be complicated and contentious no matter what.
“All three branches are possible, but I think [Wiens] is on the right track with aiming at Congress,” Lebens said. “A presidential order likely would be easier to undo than [Wiens] would like, and the courts tend to move quite slowly.
“It’s largely a matter of whether we view software as being primarily utilitarian—and therefore having little copyright protection—or artistic, in which case it would be far more protected,” he added. “As our tools become much more software dependent, this issue is going to get bigger and bigger.”
With successful efforts like the new law legalizing phone unlocking and the deluge of comments sent to the Copyright Office, Wiens and his backers are optimistic they can shift the law in a different direction.
“The goal is that grassroots advocacy will create awareness, awareness will create lobbying efforts, and lobbying efforts will effect change,” said Amy Kardel, a supporter of Wiens’ and co-founder of Clever Ducks, a local IT consulting company.
“The fundamental issue is actually quite easy to understand,” she added. “It’s all about ownership rights.”
Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.