How DRM Affects Right to Repair Hardware / Software

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Our lives are more connected now than ever, and we rely a lot on our personal electronics. Laptops, cellphones, smartwatches, and other devices are part of our daily routine. But what happens when they stop working?

In the past, some of our devices were more modular and easier to repair, but this is becoming more and more difficult as time goes by because our devices are far more complex and smaller… or is it?

As a software engineer, you are sometimes asked to add DRM to a piece of software you’re creating. It’s normal practice when you work with a company that provides software as a service, but should this lock people from repairing their hardware too?

I’ve seen both sides of this story: on one side I’m a big fan of fixing your own gadgets, tinkering with devices you purchase and rightfully own, and experimenting to get the most out of it. On the other side, I’ve been asked to limit device management software to lock the client from making their own software solutions and limiting hardware support if we found out they tampered with the software.

What is Right to Repair

Right to repair normally refers to legislation that allows us to have access to the necessary information and gives us multiple options to repair our electronics, giving them more life instead of being discarded as trash or replacing it with a newer product so often.

Right to repair has gained a lot of traction lately. For example, in the United States, 25 states are considering the right to repair legislation to require manufacturers of electronic equipment to provide the necessary schematics, spare parts, and diagnostic tools required to repair their electronic devices, and president Joe Biden just ordered the FTC to draft the right to repair rules.

What’s currently happening in the industry

There are several ways companies are locking customers from repairing their devices or making them more difficult or expensive in order to get more sales or to have control of the device after the sale. Some, for example, are limiting the necessary components or guides citing violations of their property rights. This has not been a problem for certain industries, like the automotive industry in which automotive manufacturers are required to provide the same information they use in their dealer shops to independent repair shops and individuals. Another example is limiting repairs only to authorized dealers thanks to proprietary diagnostic tools, locking out independent repair stores, or even self-repairs. American farmers have been heavily impacted by this by being locked out of repairs on their tractors based on the proprietary software needed to diagnose or even fix them.

Before being a software developer, I witnessed how DRM was used to limit our right to repair firsthand. I worked in a call center that provided technical support to a gaming console with a high failure rate, and if we saw that customers tampered with their devices physically or by software, we denied service on the hardware, even if the customer was willing to pay. While the company was right that modifying the hardware’s firmware to play backup games can lead to game piracy, that should have banned the users from their online service only. But by not allowing them to repair their devices when they are the only ones that could diagnose and repair certain hardware issues, that was not OK from my point of view.

Once I started my career as a software developer, I encountered another DRM-related issue. A couple of years ago I developed communication software that helped our clients send information (a retail items database) to certain company equipment. This equipment was rightfully theirs; they paid for it and could do basic hardware modifications but could not edit the firmware of the device. One of our clients was not happy with the communication solutions we were providing them, so they opted for installing custom firmware to manage the equipment on their own. One of their devices broke down — a hardware problem. When they requested service work on the equipment, it was refused once the technician figured out the firmware was tampered with. They could not get parts for it and had to buy new ones from our competitor. We lost a client in the end because we tried to lock down sales, software solutions, and services with DRM, and in the end, it was not worth it.

Why is the right to repair important?

One of the most important points for the right to repair is helping the environment. By making it more accessible to repair our electronics, they can last longer and can be reused by other people or integrated into other projects at home. A perfect example of reusability done right is repurposing old smartphones as smart sensors for smart homes.

Another important point is revitalizing the economy by helping more small businesses repair our devices with the necessary information, and reducing the monopoly manufacturers have.

What can we do as software developers?

Most of the time we sign an NDA that limits us from sharing certain parts of our job with third parties. But that doesn’t limit how we can help our community. We need to be more vocal on the right to repair, help create sites that promote better practices in our industry to empower customers and not corporations. We need to limit our implementation of DRM to only software licensing, and not as a watchdog that monitors how the consumer uses their hardware.

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