Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) is a fresh, diverse voice in Congress and I am excited he is running for a new seat in the city. But I’m also pretty disappointed he is sponsoring legislation that would undermine the legal and technological protections that make streaming films and entertainment possible. I would have thought Jones would have the back of artists and filmmakers like myself.
The Freedom to Repair Act legislation addresses a real problem: because pretty much everything from TVs to tractors uses embedded software to function, it’s become hard for people to fix their own gear. Often it requires special digital tools and software permissions most individuals can’t get. When corporate manufacturers erect unfair obstacles to the information, tools, and legal clearance needed to repair vital machines, people get forced to go to expensive “authorized” dealers or repair centers – limiting competition and making DIY solutions impossible.
But Jones’ proposed solution goes way beyond targeted rules to make sure farmers can get the information and licenses they need to fix their tractors – and filmmakers can fix their drones, robotics, and other necessary gear. Instead, it would gut the underlying copyright law that protects our work from being hacked and pirated online. That’s a nonstarter – good intentions run amok.
In addition to outlawing online infringement, the Copyright Act also makes it illegal to create and traffic in digital hacking tools. Just like Home Depot can’t sell burglar’s tools, no one can sell piracy equipment or software to break digital anti-copying technologies. That protects all digital art and is the foundation of the modern streaming ecosystem. It ensures no one can buy tools to rip a copy of my work from Amazon Prime Video and upload it to a piracy site.
But the Freedom to Repair Act would make developing and selling piracy tools legal – putting the work of everyone whose livelihoods depend on digital distribution at risk. That’s a significant number of Americans: 2.2 million Americans work in the film, television, and streaming industry according to the Motion Picture Association, and 5.7 million Americans when you account for everyone who works in copyright-intensive industries according to the International Intellectual Property Alliance.
Unfortunately, the Freedom to Repair Act makes no distinction between specific areas where carveouts could be useful for devices where self-repair is especially needed, like agricultural equipment or cell phone screens and allowing hacking tools used for piracy. It would legalize a vast new market for digital piracy tools covering any “digital electronic equipment” – including devices used extensively for digital entertainment like smart TVs, tablets, streaming boxes, and game consoles.
In an era when everyone should be working to make the internet safer and healthier for everyone, this bill goes against the tide. It’s hardly a secret that online piracy is already a huge problem; Congress shouldn’t supercharge it with pro-piracy legislation like this bill.
Safer, more thoughtful approaches are available. Car makers and independent repair shops, for example, recently reached an agreement to ensure competition and consumer access for auto repair services. That kind of targeted agreement negotiated by experts for a particular technology or industry poses far less risk than sweeping one-size-fits-all legislation. Similarly, Congress enacted legislation several years ago to let smartphone users switch networks by unlocking their phones without flooding the market with shoddy knockoffs. For farm equipment repair, several bills, including one from Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), avoid gutting the Copyright Act and remain focused on solving specific problems.
I would urge Jones to champion a more responsible win-win approach that gives people more ways to fix their devices without undermining digital entertainment services that offers consumers more choices and compensates creatives. Let’s fix the problem without inadvertently launching a whole new wave of digital piracy.
American and New York artists lead the world in creating film, television, music, photography, video games, books and the whole range of artistic works. At a time when digital piracy continues to wreak havoc on the creative economy and the most popular piracy sites are more popular than sites like Grubhub, Starbucks and mlb.com, Congress should be working with the creative community and technology companies to make piracy more difficult and less profitable. A difficult problem like individual device repair requires thoughtful solutions – solutions that don’t smuggle in other agendas and create a devastating new trade in online piracy tools.