Copyright Office inquiry may lead to changes in the law that give consumers greater freedom over their belongings.
Most people think that buying a toaster, say, lets you do anything you want with it. That may be wrong. Copyright law may limit your rights even as to products you bought and paid for.
Here’s why. That toaster, if not a bottom-of-the-line model, probably has a digital controller to make sure it heats your bread to a precise level of doneness. The controller runs software. Whoever wrote that software acquired a copyright in it, now held by … well, that’s hard to say. Perhaps the toaster manufacturer, or one of its suppliers, or one of their suppliers in turn. But it’s not you. Chances are that when you put down your credit card at Best Buy, although you obtained clear ownership of the steel and plastic, you received only a license to use the software, whose ownership remains elsewhere. In the extreme case, your limited rights to the software could block you from selling the toaster at a yard sale, or even giving it away.
This is nuts, right? If you buy a toaster – or anything else – you should own it, period. Perhaps, but it’s not as obvious to the authors of the copyright laws. Their fine print seems to put unexpected conditions on your ownership. Recognizing the murkiness at this intersection of copyright law and technology – particularly in view of the ubiquity of software-laden items in our lives – U.S. Senators Grassley and Leahy have asked the Copyright Office to review the effects of existing copyright law on “everyday products.” Among other things, they want to know whether the copyright laws enable or frustrate how products are designed and distributed, their effect on innovative services, and how copyright intersects with other laws in establishing how software-based products can be lawfully used.
The Copyright Office has previously addressed the consumer’s right to access and modify software in items – cellphones, for instance, or tablets – where the existence of the software, and the consumer’s potential interest in accessing it, are obvious. It has also allowed car owners to modify the software in their vehicles. But Senators Grassley and Leahy are thinking far more broadly than that, prompted by the fact that almost everything you buy nowadays with a power cord or a battery is running software.
The Copyright Office wants to know what you think, with an eye to recommending possible changes in the law. Its Notice of Inquiry reads like a law school term paper, but you have our permission to skip ahead to the actual questions starting in the right-hand column on page 77671. Comments are due by February 16, 2016, and reply comments by March 8. Instructions on how to submit your views should be posted on this website by February 1.