A recent decision by the U.S. Copyright Office could make it easier for consumers to repair their own smartphones, laptops, and other electronic devices. Consumer advocates are calling it a major victory in the growing right-to-repair movement.

The decision allows consumers and repair services to circumvent the digital rights management (DRM) built into many devices. DRM functions like a lock coded into the software of many products and services. The goal is to prevent hacking or the theft of intellectual property, but DRM also has other effects.

Prior to this U.S. Copyright Office decision, consumers were breaking the law, in many cases, if they tried to fix a device they owned. If they took it to an independent repair shop, the shop owner could be in legal jeopardy, too.

The new rule went into effect Sunday, Oct. 28.

“This is a welcome advance for consumers’ basic ownership rights in the digital age,” says George Slover, a senior policy counsel at Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. “It removes a major roadblock to their having control over the products they purchase.” 

However, consumers still face challenges if they want to repair their devices. Both consumers and independent repair centers may lack the technical ability to bypass DRM locks.

Right-to-repair advocates also note that repair parts and service manuals are unavailable for many products.

More on Maintaining Your Electronics

That means that when a gadget breaks, the consumer often has just two choices: Get the manufacturer to fix the product or buy a new one.

“Every day people are becoming more aware of the tricks and schemes that manufacturers use to block access to repair,” says Nathan Proctor, who leads the right-to-repair efforts for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “While this decision addresses the legal aspect, the question now is, can we get manufacturers to cooperate to give us what we need to fix stuff on our own?”

According to Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, around 20 states may address that concern in 2019 with legislation requiring manufacturers of everything from laptops to smartphones to refrigerators to make spare parts and service manuals available to consumers and independent repair shops.

In 2014, an automotive right-to-repair law in Massachusetts helped lead to more choices across the country for consumers facing check engine lights.

“Five years ago, support for right to repair was a big if,” Gordon-Byrne says. "Now it's not."

So It's Legal—But Is It a Good Idea?

The Copyright Office rules don't require manufacturers to provide repair centers with information on their products, but state laws could.

Opponents of right-to-repair legislation have argued that the laws could open consumers to security and privacy risks.

“By requiring manufacturers to release sensitive, often proprietary repair-related information to all service providers—not just those authorized to service the products—the bills potentially create safety risks for consumers and threaten electronic security in the case of connected products,” the Alliance of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) warned in a letter to Massachusetts lawmakers earlier this year.

However, advocates argue, that’s not a good reason to shut down consumer choice. Sure, a repair center (authorized or otherwise) could theoretically steal your personal data or place malware on your laptop, but independent shops already replace hard drives. Besides, electronics aren't unique that way: People are exposed to the risk of dishonest businesses whenever they let a plumber into their home or drop their car off at a mechanic. 

“It is absolutely true that when you trust someone to take apart your computer" you're taking a risk, says Cory Doctorow, a prominent technology journalist and digital rights advocate who publicly supports right-to-repair laws. “The way that we address this historically is by having a multiplicity of vendors and service providers who act as checks on one another.”

People who work at service centers object to the suggestion that local businesses are likely to do mischief or worse with their customers’ property.

“Building up a loyal customer base is what keeps shops like this in business,” Sam Fullerton, senior mobile technician at Midwest Komputers & Phone Lab in Madison, Wis., tells Consumer Reports. “If we started doing weird things to people’s phones—I don’t know what or why—but if we were that would be shooting ourselves in the foot. We wouldn’t have customers for very long.” 

And, technicians say, they're up to the task. 

“At the end of the day a smartphone is a small computer,” Fullerton says. “If you know basically how a computer functions and its hardware, you are fully capable of fixing an iPhone or an Android.”

Rich Fisco, who oversees smartphone testing for Consumer Reports, says that fixing a busted phone or other device can be very tricky. But whether you bring it to an authorized repair center, an independent shop, or your own workbench should be up to you, he says. There's no good reason to keep the parts and necessary information out of reach of consumers, he says: “When you buy it, it’s yours.”