“YODA law” would ensure devices can be resold free of copyright

Cue the “pass this law, we must” jokes. On Wednesday, lawmakers reintroduced the “You Own Devices Act” (YODA) to make sure that manufacturers can’t use copyright mind tricks to prevent consumers from selling or giving away the connected devices they own.

The need for YODA comes about because of the fact that we typically don’t own software. Instead, we simply license it pursuant to terms handed down by a company via the internet — that’s why many people are surprised to learn they don’t actually own the iTunes songs or Kindle books they buy, but are instead using them at the pleasure of Apple and Amazon.

While this licensing quirk often doesn’t matter for practical purposes, it does when you die and can’t pass on your books or music collection.

But more importantly, the potential scope for companies to make mischief is getting much bigger as many more devices come with software inside: cars, coffee makers and even clothes are getting connected to the internet, which provides that many more opportunities for abusive licensing.

Consider, for instance, the connected bra that detects cancer. In the (admittedly unlikely) event that its owner chose to sell or give it away, the bra maker could claim that doing so violated their resale right in the copyrighted code inside it, and sue the bra’s original owner for copyright infringement.

That’s why Representatives Blake Farenthold (R-Tx) and Jared Polis (D-Co) are pushing the YODA bill as a way to put such worries to rest. What the bill would do is amend the Copyright Act, by adding a provision that includes the text:

if a computer program enables any part of a machine or other product to operate, the owner of the machine or other product is entitled to transfer an authorized copy of the computer program, or the right to obtain such copy, when the owner sells, leases, or otherwise transfers the machine

Though there’s no word if this bill is going anywhere (last year’s version died quietly), the underlying idea is a good one, and one that other politicians can embrace as a way to show they understand the connected world.

For more on the bill and the underlying IP issues, Professor Dennis Crouch had a good rundown in September on PatentlyO.