Do you really own your stuff, or are you just licensing it?

Consumer rights work differently when it comes to digital, as opposed to physical, objects. That's because digital objects come burdened with all kinds of copyright restrictions. And as the line between physical and digital blurs - as we move more fully into the internet of things - copyright laws may crowd out ownership rights. If we want to keep our rights -- if we want to be owners, not renters -- we will have to fight for those rights now, before it's too late.

So we're doing just that. Kyle wrote an editorial in Wired explaining where we're at right now.

Things you can do now!

Together, we can make a difference. But it's going to take persistence and imagination.

We are:

  • Kyle Wiens of iFixit, the intrepid free repair manual
  • Sherwin Siy of Public Knowledge, the DC-based internet freedom fighters
  • Corynne McSherry, chief intellectual property badass at EFF
  • Parker Higgins, EFF rabble-rouser extraordinaire
  • Sina Khanifar, cell phone unlocking and digital rights crusader

No, we don't know why the safe was empty.

Proof: Kyle, Sherwin, EFF

Comments: 187 • Responses: 27  • Date: 

a_little_pixie24 karma

What are some of the things you are activly doing to protect our rights? Have you made any headway?

Thanks for taking the time to do this.

kwiens12 karma

We have been working with the European Union to get the manufacturers to share more service information, with some progress. The recently updated battery directive now requires all products come with instructions for replacing the battery.

This is great news! It's hugely important for tablets and wearable technology. If you can't replace the battery, you limit the product life to 12-24 months. Now, with instructions included for battery replacement we should be much better equipped to do these swaps ourselves.

Euchre11 karma

My question is for Kyle of iFixit: As the tech community has come to effectively embrace the idea of programmed obsolescence, do you view yourselves as key to extending the useful life of technology devices, or just exhibitors of the fact of the mechanism of obsolescence?

kwiens14 karma

Ah, to document a tragedy! What a thing it would have been to have filmed the titanic as it sank below the waves!

I understand your cynicism, but I'm optimistic that we can change things. In the last few years, we've seen thousands of cell phone repair shops springing up all over. Apple puts proprietary screws on their phones, so we (and many others) created new screwdrivers. HTC glued together their flagship phone, and the resulting outrage has put a damper on their sales.

People are getting increasingly fed up with locked-down devices and shorter and shorter product lives. We see that on iFixit where millions of people are doing their own repairs every month. So I absolutely think we can (and are) making a difference and impacting product design. And the louder and more vocal we are, the faster we can get the pendulum swinging back in the right direction.

Euchre7 karma

I'd like to say I'm writing this on a day one (Jan. 22 2005) Mac mini, which I recently upgraded with an SSD and maxed RAM, so I could install Leopard and keep using it that little bit longer. I'm frustrated that most of the tech community sees not being the latest as equal to obsolete. I evangelize extending the life of technology to everyone I know. The last brand new computer I bought was in 2007.

kwiens8 karma

That's a great machine! And (assuming you have a paint scraper) reasonably easy to get in and upgrade. You don't get as much bang for your buck with new hardware as you used to, so there's no reason not to keep the hardware you've got running as long as possible.

swagglebutt8 karma

Why do you need to fight for my right to fix my phone? Do I not really "own" it because it gives me access to the digital music and movies on it, or is there some other reason?

SherwinPK9 karma

In the case of your phone, the phone companies argue that jailbreaking or unlocking it violates their copyrights. In other words, they can stop you from using your own device the way you want. That's something less than actual ownership.

Assuming you're not trying to pirate the phone OS (because who does that?), copyright law shouldn't keep you from moving to another carrier, or installing your own software on your own devices.

kwiens7 karma

The DMCA doesn't respect intent. It's illegal to unlock a phone for any reason, even if it doesn't involve any infringement. The law should make it illegal to pirate music, without putting any restrictions on unlocking or jailbreaking.

kwiens8 karma

We had to start iFixit because the manufacturers were using copyright to prevent people from sharing service manuals. Just last year, Toshiba yanked all their manuals down from Tim's laptop manual site.

Electronics are complicated, and they're very challenging to fix without a lot of reverse engineering (like we do on iFixit) or the service manuals and circuit schematics.

Copyright exists to incentivize the creation of creative works. There's no reason that society should be handing such a massive protection to manufacturers to prevent distribution of service manuals. Repair is good for society, and our laws should be encouraging it -- not inhibiting repair.

Posting OEM manuals online and improving them should be a fair use, but the legal uncertainties made it difficult for iFixit to do so. So we write new manuals. It works, but it's a bit … inefficient.

boogieidm6 karma

Regardless of what is illegal or not I have been doing just fine all this time. ;) Who are they to tell us we can't fix something that we don't like that WE OWN. I don't see this making it very far. Props to you all for fighting for something that seems so small but reaches as far as the sun.

kwiens6 karma

That's why I'm so confident we're going to win. Repair is completely natural -- things break, so you bodge and fiddle until they work again.

Unlocking phones is technically currently illegal, but I have a feeling a lot of people are still doing it anyway. Politicians are going to have a really hard time preventing us from doing what we want with our things.

The challenge is that with electronics, reverse engineering every single product is very time consuming. As repairs get less intuitive and products get more complex, we're going to have to rely on more information from the product designers. And that's where copyright is overreaching. Why in the world should diagnostic codes be protected under copyright?

My (overly fancy) water heater broke the other day, and it gave me a 4-digit error code. The manufacturer wouldn't share the code. Well how in the world are you supposed to fix it if you can't get the codes?

As products get more complex, we need more information to do repairs. And overly generous copyright protections are standing in our way.

iDareToDream6 karma

I've seen this several times on reddit, the idea of a "digital bill of rights". In most cases, such a bill is proposed to protect rights of privacy. If you guys were tasked with creating and implementing a digital bill of rights, what consumer rights would you enshrine in the document?

sinakh4 karma

I really like iFixit's Consumers' Bill of Rights (full list at the bottom of that page).

kwiens7 karma

Here's a snapshot of it:


  • to open everything we own
  • to modify and repair our things
  • to unlock and jailbreak the software in our electronics


  • to repair information
  • to products that can be repaired
  • to reasonably-priced, independent repair shops

Right now, the law is designed to take away your freedoms. Everything is copyrighted by default. If a part is patented, it's illegal to scan and 3D print a copy.

We need to flip that on its head. The default should be to protect ownership rights. We should only be taking those rights away when there is a very good reason.

jacksdentedyugo5 karma

Perhaps just to play devil's advocate:

  1. With hardware, is at least some of the issue with "fixability" because of the demands we make on our devices? We want them lighter and faster. Can some of the design decisions (such as integrated components and proprietary parts) be different and still allow us to have these things?

  2. I am a librarian so I spend a fair amount of time thinking about digital access and its challenges, but I also see the side of content providers (I'll avoid the term creators here). Digital first sale and removal of DRM schemes are difficult to fit into existing business models. Does the move the "copyright anarchy" really benefit us in terms of access, or does it just move us down the road of patronage where content is only available to those who can pay creators directly?

kwiens2 karma

I'll answer #1. As products get smaller, there is less to fix. The iPod shuffle has three parts: the buttons, the chip, and the battery. But you should still be able to replace the battery independent of everything else.

That's with small electronic gizmos. But as electronics move into everything, the ownership issues we're having with cell phones now will impact everything.

Is your refrigerator hooked up to the internet of things yet? Five years from now, it might tweet at you when you run out of milk. There are already a shocking number of circuit boards in every day objects. Any time you've got electronics, you have IP.

I think librarians, as custodians of knowledge, are perfectly situated to predict where we're going. We need to default toward open access to knowledge and the right to tinker. The law (copyright, patents, and trademarks alike) should only take away those freedoms when there is a really, really good reason.

bertrussell4 karma

If you had the ability to rewrite copyright laws, what do you think would make for "fair" and "effective" copyright laws?

kwiens5 karma

The law should bias toward the public domain. Every time we grant copyright protection to something, we take away the public's rights. That tradeoff makes sense if it's incentivizing the creation of works that wouldn't exist otherwise.

According to (my newly coined) the Law of Electronic Eventuality, every physical product is eventually going to incorporate so-called 'intellectual property.' Do we need to grant copyright protections to that microcode to encourage companies to sell gadgets? Nope.

Physical property rights should not be infringed upon by overreaching and unnecessary 'intellectual property' rights.

HanaNotBanana4 karma


kwiens2 karma

I'm rather fond of 80s metal bands. I like Stratovarius and Judas Priest.

Sn4tch3 karma

I feel like this is something that needs to be addressed en mass. People need to rally hard in order for our rights to be "restored". It just amazes me as to what ownership has become. Why can't we all just agree that if we PAY for something we own it. It was this way with a CD, a VHS tape, a book. Why should it be any different with digital items, considering we own the hard drive its being stored on?

kwiens3 karma

Fingebimus3 karma

What reason do you think is the strongest for not being able to repair something, and what is your counter-argument?

kwiens3 karma

One consideration against DIY repair is public safety. Manufacturers consistently use that reasoning to restrict the availability of internal repair manuals. "We can't release these repair instructions! Someone could hurt themself when they take apart our stuff."

But here's the rub: manufacturers are essentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tinkering is hardwired into humans—we've always done it. And leaving DIYers without the instructions they need to repair their electronics or their cars is a great way to put them at risk.

Worse, manufacturers use safety claims to prevent everyone—not just DIYers—from getting their hands on instructions, even independent repair technicians (who manage to do their jobs every day without killing themselves or anyone else). If those repair techs aren't on the list of authorized repairers, they don't get see the repair manual. In the end, the public safety argument is just another way to funnel more people into authorized repair centers and capture more profit.

Look at it this way: people are going to be taking apart and fixing everything. Wouldn't they be safer if they had instructions for how to do it properly?

rem14733 karma

The Wired article references that Renault put DRM in a car battery and can shut the car down if you violate the contract. Why is that offensive to you? I don't find that offensive at all. Why should your opinion, my opinion, or the opinion of the government get in between Renault and their customers?

I would find it offensive if Renault willfully deceived the public about that special battery. Renault should not be permitted to be deceptive that the battery exists and their ability to shut down the car. Personally, I would never, ever purchase a Renault, if I knew they had a way to shut down the car. I think that is egregious. But I am not going to tell my neighbor that I am going to lobby the government to disallow the sale of a Renault to them, because I don't like one particular component installed in the car. I think the government should let the free market exist. The issues of adding DRM to a battery to disable a car are between Renault and their customers. I fail to see why the government should get involved. I fail to see why your opinion and my opinion should matter. It's between Renault and their customers.

Should GM be permitted to shut down a car using OnStar if the car is reported stolen? That would probably be OK with most people. But if they shut down the car because you didn't pay your OnStar bill, or violate your contract with them in some other way, that suddenly becomes offensive?

kwiens4 karma

DRM doesn't get listed on the stickers; it's buried in contracts and in click-through (rarely-read) agreements. And DRM gets tricky when it comes to physical goods—because you've paid for that good. It's yours, or it should be. To use your example: If I don't pay my OnStar bill, OnStar has every right to cancel my OnStar service—OnStar shouldn't have the right to turn off my car.

The more alarming consideration: As more and more of our stuff becomes a software-hybird, manufacturers have more control over what you own. It makes you dependent. Check out the EFF's article on the Renault issue.

And if you don't have time to read the whole thing, this is my favorite part:

"In plenty of cases, DRM has led to users losing altogether the ability to watch, listen to, read, or play media that can't be "authenticated." Video games with online components now routinely reach an end-of-life period where the company providing the authentication decides it's no longer worth it to operate the servers. That raises the frightening possibility of a company like Renault deciding that it's not cost-effective anymore to verify new batteries—and leaving car owners high and dry."

Liberty_Scholar3 karma


CorynnEFF6 karma

My wishlist, off the top of my head: Eliminate section 1201 of the DMCA; rationalize copyright penalties; make clear that first sale and related rights (e.g., to repair) extend to digital goods; scale back copyright terms. There's more, but that'd be a good start.

CorynnEFF4 karma

Oh, and Batman, obviously.

kwiens4 karma

I gotta second Corynne on Batman. We don't need superpowers, just awesome hardware.

ChaseLambeth2 karma

Why does it cost so much more now to unlock a phone when 3 months ago you could unlock thousands of devices for $0.08/ea usd?

kwiens2 karma

I have heard that the carriers are cracking down on people that had access to the software that was generating the unlocking codes.

The only foolproof way to unlock in bulk is going to be to crack the encryption on the lock. We need an ecosystem of toolmakers that ensure we can unlock our phones without any support from the carriers.

42mac2 karma

My question is for Kyle from iFixit: With the advent of 3D printers and their ultimate move into the mainstream, do you foresee iFixit as a repository for 3D printer files and the like? My vision of the near future are open-source products that are designed to BE repaired by the end user. If one could buy a vacuum cleaner or other small appliance that all the breakable components were easily fabricated by anyone with a 3D printer, wouldn't that turn the entire industry on it's head? And how will they stop people from scanning parts of popular items, and posting the 3D files online? Your thoughts?

kwiens3 karma

I totally agree, 3D printing repair parts is the future. We plan to add a 3D part database to iFixit at some point. In the meantime, you can always upload parts directly to the device page.

The OEMs wouldn't be able to stop a bittorrent of 3D parts, but they might be able to stop iFixit from hosting them. 3D printed parts run smack into IP issues. 3D trademarks and design patents make the legality of reproducing designs (or pieces of designs) questionable.

3D printing is a wide open frontier, and we're really excited about the possibilities for democratizing repair. But I have a feeling we're going to need some legal reform along the way.

Right now, the law is biased toward device manufacturers and away from consumer fair use. The assumption is that any reproduction is an infringement, no matter what the intent. That needs to change.

SherwinPK2 karma

One of the things about 3d printing is that it also exposes a lot of assumptions people make about copyright and digital tech.

We're used to thinking of files of copyrighted things--movies, music, text; because those things tend, by default, to be copyrighted.

But look around the room you're in. The physical objects int he room, barring the occasional sculpture or whatever, are not, and in most cases, cannot be copyrighted. And unless you're in a room made of iphones, there's probably fewer design patents involved than you might think.

So for most of the 3d models of things that could be printed, copyright doesn't even come into it. Patents also will only apply in certain circumstances, and there are doctrines in patent (like a right to repair a patented product) that can prevent the sort of widespread liability that could shut down a service like that.

42mac5 karma

So if a plastic knob or a gear breaks on my trusty 1989 Honda, there's a good chance I can print that out, at home, without violating any design patent? I envision a future where I can either print parts out myself, or if want, go to Kinko's (remember them?) and pick up my printed part for a nominal fee. No waiting for the manufacturer to have a simple part fabricated in China and shipped over here at a significant cost.

kwiens2 karma

WIt's funny, the plastic heater knob on my trusty 1992 Honda broke the other day. I pulled one off a junker and it broke too. So I guess I need to make a 3D model of it now and print a new one.

Copyright wouldn't impact my ability to do that, but if Honda had a design patent on the knob then it would be illegal for me to print one.

That's why so many car companies are filing for design patents on collision parts like bumpers -- not to prevent competitors from making cars that look similar (like the law intended), but to prevent anyone but them from making repair parts. I'm concerned that this is a growing trend, and the PARTS Act has been introduced in Congress to fix this issue with cars. We may need similar legislation for other types of products.

zolman1 karma

You guys just reminded me to fix my Samsung Galaxy s3 screen. I should probably order the screen now. Just wanted to say you guys are great and consider the petition signed.

kwiens1 karma

Awesome. You can do it! Post a picture when you're done.

JacqLe1 karma

We should make it easier for people to buy reparable items. Imagine a optional label that would clearly indicate: 1) repairability index 2) availability of manufacturer repair manual iFixit could be one of the certification body

kwiens1 karma

We are certainly open to doing this. We have been rating the repairability of smartphones and tablets, and I think that there is a real need for a industry-wide repairability assessment standard.

We are certainly interested in helping and sharing our perspective. But we'd have to see the manufacturers or major purchasers get on board with it as well.

SherwinPK1 karma

Ok: I, for one, have to run for a bit. Thanks for all your questions. I'll try to pop in a few hours from now and see if there's any remaining loose threads.

Thanks again, and please feel free to keep the questions coming, here or elsewhere!

@SherwinPK on twitter

kwiens1 karma

I'm slowing down too, but I'll come back and answer anything that gets voted up for me later tonight!

FuckingRhombus1 karma


kwiens1 karma

When we say 'the free repair manual,' we mean free as in speech as well as free as in beer.

But you shouldn't take that on faith. Everything on iFixit is licensed under Creative Commons. We do a data dump of everything on iFixit to the Internet Archive. That means that if iFixit gets hit by a meteor, you should be able to take all the manuals and set up

What we're building is similar to Wikipedia. But we decided that instead of asking for donations every year, we'd sell useful parts and tools alongside the manuals. Please feel free to use content on iFixit (written by us or by the community) and never ever buy anything.

Repair knowledge belongs to the world. We're sharing everything we possibly can, and working to change existing laws so we can share even more.

eskalay1 karma

What could a regular person do to help protect these rights?

kwiens1 karma

Education is half the battle. I'm constantly surprised by the sheer number of people—even lawmakers—who know almost nothing about how copyright shapes their interaction with the world. Part of the reason why is that corporate interests have been really good at keeping the conversation behind closed doors.

Want to make a difference? Blow those doors open. Tell other people what's happening, sign petitions, and e-mail your Congressperson. It takes a lot of noise to get lawmakers to listen. And keep at it—we're not going to solve this in a week. But we can have a huge impact if we're persistent.

eefcee1 karma

Curious for some specific examples of how copyright has been used to inhibit the "free repair manual" efforts of iFixIt. Can you share some examples of work that you have been forced to take down or avoid and how copyright law changes could help make that sort of material available?

kwiens1 karma

Sure, good question. I wrote a column about this in Wired last year.

happinessinmiles1 karma

Love your work and we're all rooting for you! What can we do to protect our rights and freedoms online? Sign petitions, share certain things with friends, etc?

kwiens1 karma

This is going to be a big year for digital rights advocacy, and we need to build an army of supporters.

We have a Repair Pledge that you can sign, along with some more information on Right to Repair.

The EFF has a Copyright Week petition going over here.

We're going to be putting together citizen action kits for right to repair soon. Sign up for the repair pledge and we'll be in touch with some concrete things you can do in your local community.

OregonMike1 karma

Just wanted to say that I've been using ifixit now for a very long time & I really appreciate the work that's gone into the fixit guides! Thanks tons!

kwiens1 karma

You're most welcome! We're going to keep adding more manuals every day.

Keep on fixing!

markevens0 karma


I'm a big fan of iFixit. I own numerous tools of yours and your repair manuals are extensive and top notch.

Can you explain how iFixit is being threatened and what I could do to help?

kwiens2 karma

iFixit's mission is to teach everyone how to fix everything. We should have service manuals for every product out there — but we can't, because of legal threats from Apple and Toshiba and others.

Our Right to Repair page has a pretty good overview of the issue. We're going to be doing a lot this year to work to expand our reach and influence, and we'd love your help.

Repair is local, and the solution is going to be local. We need to get as many groups and people aware of the problem and engaged as possible. These ownership issues impact everyone from farmers to hospitals. Everyone has a stake in making sure that we actually own -- and can fix -- our things.

xLegend4ry0 karma


kwiens3 karma

We thought that it was important to incentivize an open source jailbreak. The prize hasn't been awarded yet because none of the existing jailbreaks have released their code.

With the NSA iPhone hacking revelations, I think it's more and more important that we be able to audit code running on our own devices.