Game consoles aren’t the only things that are illegal to fix. Philips is suing companies who repair medical equipment for hospitals, arguing that they have circumvented digital locks in the course of their work. Sound familiar? That’s because there’s not much practical difference between the software in your console, your smartphone, or a ventilator. They’re all just computers. But the Copyright Office insists on defining these categories so narrowly that we have to apply for separate exemptions for each type of product. For instance, the Copyright Office requires us to apply for a different exemption for smart televisions than smart refrigerators, even though Samsung uses the same Tizen operating system for both. Accessing the software in the exact same John Deere engine in a tractor or a boat requires two totally different exemptions. According to the Copyright Office, the former is currently allowed and the latter is not.
Hopefully some boat mechanics will band together to hire expensive IP lawyers that can ask Washington to make their trade legal again. If that sounds ludicrous, that’s exactly what Summit Imaging and Transtate Equipment, two medical servicing companies, are doing right now.
This hodgepodge of product-specific exemptions is the result of a process that is biased against tech users. Having to go to the Copyright Office every three years, hat in hand, to ask for permission to simply fix our stuff is infuriating. Congress thinks so too, and Representative Zoe Lofgren of California has repeatedly introduced legislation that would grant a permanent exemption to Section 1201 for activities like repair that don’t otherwise violate copyright law.
A lot has happened in the last three years, and a lot will happen in the next three. Tech moves at a speed that far outpaces the Copyright Office’s exemption process. There’s no way current copyright exemptions can predict (and protect us from) new repair-hostile practices, emerging tech, or a global supply-chain breakdown. The Copyright Office may believe it’s protecting the content industry’s interests, but in reality, it’s hamstringing essential repair services—critical to keeping the things that power our economy running—with arbitrary rules and burdensome administrative processes. We can’t keep playing exemption whack-a-mole. Consumers deserve the right to repair everything that they own.
Unfortunately for now, we’re stuck with a broken law. But an exemption for gaming consoles will help people and repair shops get consoles working again, save more circuit boards from clogging waste streams, and get you back to playing your favorite games.
Even though manufacturers keep releasing new consoles, repair shops are seeing real demand to keep older game consoles running. Harwell knows there are some customers who—out of nostalgia, frugality, or a desire to appease the kids—want to fire up an earlier Xbox or PlayStation and jam with some old favorites.
But the inability to fix consoles without a new motherboard or time-consuming soldering work make repairs more expensive than they need to be. Tim Mentzer, owner of Mentzer Repairs in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, estimates that locked-down parts are responsible for about 70 percent of decommissioned consoles at his shop—either because of physical impossibility or because the required parts make it too expensive for his customers.
When I spoke to Harwell at Replay’d, he didn’t mince words, “Microsoft and Sony are being irresponsible,” he told me. “It’s irresponsible that they make consoles with a part that could be easily replaced so difficult to [repair]. You could prevent all the waste once the drives go bad. We end up with all these boxes just recycled and trashed.”
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