Copyright Law Is Bricking Your Game Console. Time to Fix That

There aren’t enough game consoles in the world for our upcoming locked-down holiday. Good luck finding a PS5 for Christmas. As Nintendo similarly struggles to keep up with demand, the number of people searching iFixit for Switch repair guides has more than tripled since last year. Traffic to our Joy-Con controller repair page started growing dramatically on March 14—the day after President Trump declared a national emergency. It’s been surging ever since. At a time when so many of us are turning to games for fun, stress relief, and social connection, it is imperative for our collective sanity that we press every game console into service.

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Kyle Wiens is the cofounder and CEO of iFixit, an online repair community and parts retailer internationally renowned for its open source repair manuals and product teardowns.But if you talk with expert repair technicians like Bryan Harwell, they’ll tell you that significant obstacles stand in the way.At Replay’d, Harwell’s Boston repair and game shop, one out of every 10 customers brings in a console with a broken optical drive. Not only does a broken drive mean you can’t play your favorite discs, but on most Xbox and PlayStation models, a faulty DVD or Blu-ray drive will cause the whole console to stop working, even if the owner mostly plays downloaded, digital games. Harwell has hundreds of Xboxes in the shop basement that his technicians could harvest drives from, but there’s a catch—an obscure part of US copyright law makes it illegal for him to repurpose those drives. All too often, he’s had to give a hopeful child a dour prognosis: The only cost-effective way to fix their console is illegal. The only legal path requires parts so expensive that they’d be better off buying a new console (if they can find one).
The root of the problem is that Microsoft and Sony lock down the software they use to pair their disc readers with their consoles’ motherboards. Shops like Replay’d could easily replace those drives by accessing the software pairing the drives with the boards. Instead, the repair industry is cowering in fear of a relatively obscure provision of copyright law banning the removal of digital locks that’s kept everyone from gamers to farmers and hospitals from fixing the devices they own.

Courtesy of Kyle Wiens
Fortunately, Congress built an escape hatch. Every three years, the Librarian of Congress decides that, for certain products, circumvention of these digital locks should be allowed. That time is once again upon us. Next week, with the help of Public Knowledge and our fellow advocates for Right to Repair, iFixit will ask the US Copyright Office to make fixing consoles, along with other software-enabled devices, legal.Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed by Congress in 1998, makes it illegal to “circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a copyrighted work.” In Harwell’s case, the copyrighted work is the firmware on the optical drive.