You bought it, you own it? Right?

‘If you can’t open it you don’t own it’ (Jalopy) is an extract from the Maker’s Bill of Rights in critique lack of access, control and product ownership. Product ownership might once have been understood to include the right to fair use, to repair, to transport and move and to perhaps eventually resell, recycle or gift the product that you paid for, right?  Recently however we find a growing list of controls and licences that inhibit the extent of your rights as a product owner. 

I'm no longer talking about your music or films, instead i'm talking about your car, your fridge and your phone. Of course we’ve already seen this battle over ownership and copying in the digital sphere but Digital Rights Management (DRM), and similarly IMO problematic legislation in the digital sphere are making their way into physical products in new and troubling ways. In part due to servitisation but also to serve the lifetime value (ie money extracted from customers over time) aims of the company producing the product.

To take the critique beyond your right to look under the hood - if you can’t move it, is it really yours? Consider the Mori Seiki NV5000 A/40 CNC Mill which contains a GPS and a gyro sensor package which shuts down the machine if it is moves and will not allow a restart until it receives an unlock code from the manufacturers of the machine. This lock in to manufacturer services is pragmatic for the business aims of the machine manufacturer but perhaps less so for the owner of the machine. (Via Cory Doctorow) Equally miss a payment on your financed car and find it disabled, rendered unusable remotely - a tactic employed by sub prime lenders in the US.  New York Times

Similarly if you can’t repair it or choose the best third party to repair it, do you actually own it? Ford recently tried to shut down an independent repair tool company Autel citing copyright infringement. Autel are a manufacturer of third-party diagnostics tools automobiles, and they are being sued for creating a diagnostic tool that includes a list of Ford car parts and their specifications. EFF

Interestingly the underlying difficulty with repair (in the US at least) can be attributed to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which prohibits bypassing or circumventing ‘technological protection measures.’ Where most of the control measures in the aforementioned restrictions are mediated or tracked by digital technologies this predominantly digital act becomes enforceable in physical products.

None of these ‘lock-ins’ or protections against bypassing or circumvention are new of course, with phones and laptops if you open the case you void your warranty with printers if you use non approved cartridges you void your warranty but the extent and type of use in products are expanding.

Where will this take us? A future where repairing, customising or moving a product you own isn't possible or will land you in court is not a future I look forward to. Nor is  a future where my car stops working because the manufacture goes bust and the repair and diagnostic tools are discontinued and locked behind copyright.  Hacking, modding and repairing products are central to innovation, reuse and repair are important for environmental reasons and competition between manufacturers and third party services is healthy in our capitalist society.

Of course the benefits of a service economy are not to be forgotten, equally the notion of ownership of products is also under change in thanks to the sharing economy. I'll talk about those more in a later post but protecting ones ability to repair, reuse, tinker and use is important. Thankfully orgs like the EFF are working on this and we see some support for the Right to Repair act 2009 but such protections need to extend far beyond the car industry.