Intellectual property laws are always justified as being necessary for human innovation. Setting aside the fact humans have been innovating for longer than intellectual property laws have existed, the belief many people hold is that nobody would invest the resources necessary to innovate if they weren’t promised a monopoly on manufacturing afterwards. More and more though we’re seeing what the real purpose behind intellectual property laws are. It’s not to encourage innovation, it’s to curtail ownership.
Copyright is the biggest offender. Due to software copyright laws it’s getting more and more difficult to say you own anything because manufacturers are claiming anything with a computer in it is licensed, not sold. What’s that mean? It means when your product breaks down you are legally prohibited from fixing it:
How many people does it take to fix a tractor? A year ago, I would have said it took just one person. One person with a broken tractor, a free afternoon, and a box of tools.
I would have been wrong.
When the repair involves a tractor’s computer, it actually takes an army of copyright lawyers, dozens of representatives from U.S. government agencies, an official hearing, hundreds of pages of legal briefs, and nearly a year of waiting. Waiting for the Copyright Office to make a decision about whether people like me can repair, modify, or hack their own stuff.
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.
Enter the tractor. I’m not a lawyer. I’m a repairman by trade and a software engineer by education. I fix things—especially things with computers in them. And I run an online community of experts that teaches other people how to fix broken equipment. When a farmer friend of mine wanted to know if there was a way to tweak the copyrighted software of his broken tractor, I knew it was going to be rough. The only way to get around the DMCA’s restriction on software tinkering is to ask the Copyright Office for an exemption at the Section 1201 Rulemaking, an arduous proceeding that takes place just once every three years.
Ownership implies you have sole control over something. It can’t exist under intellectual property laws. So long as you stand the chance of being severely punished for repairing, modifying, or selling something you cannot claim to own it. Intellectual property claims are promises granted by the State that it will dish out those severe punishments.
This problem is also going to become exponentially worse as the number or products with embedded software increases exponentially. Soon we won’t be able to claim ownership over our refrigerators, coffee makers, or door bells. Everything in our homes will be rented property of the manufacturer. And if we violate the terms of the rental agreement the State will send its armed goons at oh dark thirty, kick down our doors announced, and shoot our pets.