A few months ago, the US Copyright Office renewed a rule stating that using unapproved filament in a 3D printer does not violate US Copyright law. The language of this rule includes the wording:
‘The exemption shall not extend to any computer program on a 3D printer that produces goods or materials for use in commerce the physical production of which is subject to legal or regulatory oversight…”
This exception is extraordinarily broad; any 3D printers can produce aircraft parts (subject to FAA approval) and medical devices (subject to FDA approval). In effect, if a 3D printer has the ability to produce objects subject to regulatory oversight, the exception allowing the use of filament not approved by the manufacturer does not apply. Additionally, it should be noted that any object produced on a 3D printer that is subject to regulatory oversight is already regulated — there’s no reason to drag the Copyright Office into the world of 3D printed ventilation masks or turbine blades.
Here at Hackaday, we write for a community of readers who are inquisitive about the technology surrounding them. You wouldn’t be here if you had never taken a screwdriver to a piece of equipment to see what makes it work. We know that as well as delving inside and modifying devices being core to the hardware hacker mindset, so is repairing. If something we own breaks, we try to work out why it broke, and what we can do to fix it.
Unfortunately, we live in an age in which fixing the things we own is becoming ever harder. Manufacturers either want to sell us now hardware rather than see us repair what breaks, or wish to exercise total control over the maintenance of their products. They make them physically impossible to repair, for example by gluing together a cellphone, or they lock down easy-to-repair items with restrictive software, for example tractors upon which every replacement part must be logged on a central computer.
This has been a huge issue in our community for a long time now, but to the Man In The Street it barely matters. To the people who matter, those who could change or influence the situation, it’s not even on the radar. Which makes a piece in the British high-end weekly newspaper The Economist particularly interesting. Entitled “A ‘right to repair’ movement tools up“, it lays out the issues and introduces the Repair Association, a political lobby group that campaigns for “Right to repair” laws in the individual states of the USA.
You might now be asking why this is important, why are we telling you something you already know? The answer lies in the publication in which it appears. The Economist is aimed at politicians and influencers worldwide. In other words, when we here at Hackaday talk about the right to repair, we’re preaching to the choir. When they do it at the Economist, they’re preaching to the crowd who can make a difference. And that’s important.
A few months ago we reported on a case coming before the United States Supreme Court that concerned recycled printer cartridges. Battling it out were Impression Products, a printer cartridge recycling company, and Lexmark, the printer manufacturer. At issue was a shrinkwrap licence on inkjet cartridges — a legal agreement deemed to have been activated by the customer opening the cartridge packaging — that tied a discounted price to a restriction on the cartridge’s reuse.
It was of concern to us because of the consequences it could have had for the rest of the hardware world, setting a potential precedent such that any piece of hardware could have conditions still attached to it when it has passed through more than one owner, without the original purchaser being aware of agreeing to any legal agreement. This would inevitably have a significant effect on the work of most Hackaday readers, and probably prohibit many of the projects we feature.
We are therefore very pleased to see that a few days ago the Supremes made their decision, and as the EFF reports, it went in favor of Impression Products, and us, the consumer. In their words, when a patent owner:
…chooses to sell an item, that product is no longer within the limits of the monopoly and instead becomes the private individual property of the purchaser, with the rights and benefits that come along with ownership.
Ben Einstein, a product designer and founder at Bolt, a hardware-based VC, recently got his hands on a Juicero press. This desktop juice press that only works with proprietary pouches filled with chopped fruits and vegetables is currently bandied in the tech press as evidence Silicon Valley has gone mad, there is no future in building hardware, and the Internet of Things is a pox on civilization. Hey, at least they got the last one right.
This iFixit-style tear down digs into the Juicero mixer in all its gory details. It’s beautiful, it’s a marvel of technology, and given the engineering that went into this machine, it was doomed to fail. Not because it didn’t accomplish the task at hand, but because it does so with a level of engineering overkill that’s delightful to look at but devastating to the production cost.
When it comes to recycled printer consumables, the world seems to divide sharply into those who think they’re great, and those who have had their printer or their work ruined by a badly filled cartridge containing cheaper photocopy toner, or God knows what black stuff masquerading as inkjet ink. It doesn’t matter though whether you’re a fan or a hater, a used printer cartridge is just a plastic shell with its printer-specific ancilliaries that you can do with what you want. It has performed its task the manufacturer sold it to you for and passed its point of usefulness, if you want to fill it up with aftermarket ink, well, it’s yours, so go ahead.
There is a case approaching the US Supreme Court though which promises to change all that, as well as to have ramifications well beyond the narrow world of printer cartridges. Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International, Inc. pits the printer manufacturer against a small cartridge recycling company that refused to follow the rest of its industry and reach a settlement.
At issue is a clause in the shrink-wrap legal agreement small print that comes with a new Lexmark cartridge that ties a discounted price to an agreement to never offer the cartridge for resale or reuse. They have been using it for decades, and the licence is deemed to have been agreed to simply by opening the cartridge packaging. By pursuing the matter, Lexmark are trying to set a legal precedent allowing such licencing terms to accompany a physical products even when they pass out of the hands of the original purchaser who accepted the licence.
There is a whole slew of concerns to be addressed about shrink-wrap licence agreements, after all, how many Lexmark owners even realise that they’re agreeing to some legal small print when they open the box? But the concern for us lies in the consequences this case could have for the rest of the hardware world. If a precedent is set such that a piece of printer consumable hardware can have conditions still attached to it when it has passed through more than one owner, then the same could be applied to any piece of hardware. The prospect of everything you own routinely having restrictions on the right to repair or modify it raises its ugly head, further redefining “ownership” as “They really own it”. Most of the projects we feature here at Hackaday for example would probably be prohibited were their creators to be subject to these restrictions.
We’ve covered a similar story recently, the latest twist in a long running saga over John Deere tractors. In that case though there is a written contract that the farmer buying the machine has to sign. What makes the Lexmark case so much more serious is that the contract is being applied without the purchaser being aware of its existence.
We can’t hold out much hope that the Supreme Court understand the ramifications of the case for our community, but there are other arguments within industry that might sway them against it. Let’s hope Impression Products v. Lexmark doesn’t become a case steeped in infamy.
If you wanted to invoke American farming with colour, which colours would you pick? The chances are they would be the familiar green and yellow of a John Deere tractor. It’s a name that has been synonymous with US agriculture since the 1830s, when the blacksmith whose name appears on the tractors produced his first steel plough blade. The words “American icon” are thrown around for many things, but in the case of John Deere there are few modern brands with as much history to back up their claim to it.
A trip across the prairies then is to drive past Deere products in use from most of the last century. They will still supply parts for machines they made before WW2, and farmers will remain loyal to the brand throughout their lives.
Well… That used to be the case. In recent years a new Deere has had all its parts locked down by DRM, such that all maintenance tasks on the tractors must be performed by Deere mechanics with the appropriate software. If your tractor breaks in the field you can fit a new part as you always have done, but if it’s a Deere it then won’t run until a Deere mechanic has had a look at it. As a result, Motherboard reports that American farmers are resorting to Ukrainian-sourced firmware updaters to hack their machines and allow them to continue working. An icon of American farming finds itself tarnished in its heartland.
We’ve reported on the Deere DRM issue before, it seems that the newest development is a licence agreement from last October that prohibits all unauthorised repair work on the machines as well as insulating the manufacturer from legal action due to “crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software”. This has sent the farmers running to illicit corners of the internet to spend their dollars on their own Deere electronic updating kits rather than on call-out fees for a Deere mechanic. Farmers have had centuries of being resourceful, this is simply the twenty-first century version of the hacks they might have performed decades ago with baler twine and old fertiliser sacks.
You might ask what the hack is here, as in reality they’re just buying a product online, and using it. But this is merely the latest act in a battle in one industry that could have ramifications for us all. Farmers are used to the model in which when they buy a machine they own it, and the Deere DRM is reshaping that relationship to one in which their ownership is on the manufacturer’s terms. How this plays out over the coming years, and how it affects Deere’s bottom line as farmers seek tractors they can still repair, will affect how other manufacturers of products non-farmers use consider DRM for their own business models.
Outside the window where this is being written is a Deere from the 1980s. It’s a reliable and very well-screwed-together tractor, though given the subject of this piece it may be our last green and yellow machine. Its dented badge makes a good metaphor for the way at least for us the brand has been devalued.
The 900-pound gorilla in the corner of the Internet of Things (IoT) hype that everyone is trying to ignore is interoperability. In the Internet of Internets (IoI) everything works on a few standards that are widely accepted: IP and HTML. The discrepancies are in the details and the standards wars are in the past. Websites are largely interoperable. Not so in the wild-west ethos of the IoT.
Philips makes a line of ZigBee-enabled RGB lightbulbs that took the enthusiast community by storm. And initially, Philips was very friendly to other devices — it makes a ZigBee-to-WiFi bridge that would let you control all of your ZigBee-based lights, regardless of their manufacturer, from your phone. Until now.
Philips has just rolled out a “Friends of Hue” certification process, and has since pushed out a firmware update where their Hue bridges stop interoperating with non-certified devices. You can read Philips’ version of the story here.
Philips Locks Out 3rd Party ZigBee Hardware
The short version is that, ZigBee standards be damned, your future non-Philips lights won’t be allowed to associate with the Philips bridge. Your GE and Osram bulbs aren’t Friends of Hue. DIY RGB strips in your lighting mix? Not Friends of Hue. In fact, you won’t be surprised to know who the “Friends of Hue” are: other Philips products, and Apple. That’s it. If you were used to running a mixed lighting system, those days are over. If you’re not on the friends list, you are an Enemy of Hue.
Their claim is that third party products may display buggy behavior on a Philips network, and that this loads up their customer-response hotlines and makes people think that Philips is responsible. Of course, they could simply tell people to disable the “other” devices and see how it works, putting the blame where it belongs. Or they could open up a “developer mode” that made it clear that the user was doing something “innovative”. But neither of these strategies prevent consumers from buying other firms’ bulbs, which cost only 30-50% of Philips’ Hue line.
While Philips is very careful to not couch it as such, the Friends of Hue program really looks like an attempt to shut out their competitors; Philips got an early lead in the RGB LED game and has a large share of the market. As they say themselves in their own press release “Today these 3rd party bulbs represent a minimal fraction of the total product connected to our bridges so the percentage of our users affected is minimal.” And they’d like to keep it that way, even though the people they’re hurting are probably their most vocal and dedicated customers.
And while we, with our manual light switches, laugh comfortably at the first-world problems of Hue consumers, we have to ask ourselves whether we’re next. Today they come for our RGB lightbulbs, but tomorrow it might be our networked toasters. A chilling thought!
Snark aside, the IoT brings two of the saddest realities of the software world into your home appliances: Where there’s code, there’s vulnerabilities, and when you can’t control the code yourself you aren’t really in control. You may own the lightbulb, but you’re merely licensing the firmware that runs it. The manufacturer can change the rules of the game, or go out of the product line entirely, and you’re high and dry. What can you do? Pull out your JTAG debugger.
Of course it’s insane to suggest that everyone needs to become an embedded-device firmware hacker just to keep their fridge running. As we’ve written before, we need to come up with some solution that puts a little more control in the hands of the ostensible owners of the devices, while at the same time keeping the baddies out. We suggest a press-to-revert-firmware button, for instance. When Philips pushes a non-consumer-friendly upgrade, you could vote with your fingertips — but then you’d miss out on bug fixes as well. Maybe it’s better to just give in an learn to love Windows 10.
There are no easy solutions and no perfect software. The industry is still young and we’ll see a lot of companies staking out their turf as with any new technology. It seems to us that IoT devices leave consumers with even less choice and control than in the past, because they are driven by firmware that’s supposed to be invisible. It’s just a lightbulb, right?
What do you think? Any ideas about how to put the power back in the hands of the “owner” of the device without everyone’s refrigerators becoming botnet zombies? Let us know in the comments.
“We underestimated the impact this would have upon the small number of our customers who currently use uncertified lights from other brands in the Philips Hue system. We have decided to continue to enable our customers who wish to integrate these uncertified products within their Philips Hue system.”