Right-to-repair issues continue to affect e-scrap industry

By Dylan de Thomas, E-Scrap News. April 30, 2015

Don’t think intellectual property laws apply to the scrap electronics recycling and refurbishment industry? Advocates fighting for “the right to repair” have news for you.

Speaking at last week’s ISRI convention in Vancouver, Corynne McSherry, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), laid out the issues facing those companies that wish to repair and refurbish the smartphones and tablets that are increasingly making up the material stream for the e-scrap industry.

“Software is now everywhere, in goods as varied as books, cars, phones and refrigerators,” McSherry said, noting that copyright restrictions are expanding alongside the so-called Internet of Things.

Electronics scrap processors have already been hampered by a copyright law that was intended to stem online piracy of music and movies but has been used instead to disallow the “unlocking” of mobile devices. That’s had a negative effect on a key value activity for the e-scrap industry — refurbishing and resell mobile phones and tablets.

At issue is section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a 1998 law that was intended to fight piracy but has instead been used by companies as varied as Apple, John Deere and General Motors to use copyright infringement claims to stop independent businesses from repairing products. E-scrap companies, for instance, have been hampered in efforts to “jailbreak” iPads, while farmers wanting to fix their tractors and mechanics aiming to repair cars have run into similar roadblocks.

Congress intervened last year and made legal the practice of unlocking mobile devices in the U.S., but the fix is temporary. Because of the law’s language, exemptions to the DMCA must be filed and approved by the Librarian of Congress every three years. That’s an “extremely burdensome process,” said McSherry.

The exemption filing is currently being undertaken by a coalition of groups including ISRI and the Juelsgaard Intellectual Property & Innovation Clinic at Stanford Law School.

At the ISRI conference, these issues were also addressed by Kyle Wiens, a reuse advocate and founder of the electronics repair resource iFixit. Wiens noted lawsprotecting right to repair have been introduced in New York and Minnesota. “Recyclers need fair-market access,” Wiens said. He laid out the importance of access to repair manuals, which allow recycling and refurb companies to safely dismantle or repair consumer electronics of all kinds.

Both Wiens and McSherry were optimistic about the New York and Minnesota bills. They were also enthusiastic about a recently introduced national bill, the “Breaking Down Barriers to Innovation Act,” which would make the section 1201 exemptions permanent.

It remains to be seen whether the bills or requested exemptions will succeed leading to what Wiens calls “the single biggest revenue-generating opportunity that’s come along for the recycling industry in a long time.”

McSherry hopes right-to-repair legislation will get her group will pull her group out of the e-scrap space. “The win is when … you don’t have to hear from a copyright lawyer to do your job,” she said.

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