When Piracy Literally Saves Lives

from the ip-madness dept

Early on in the pandemic we wrote about how some makers of medical equipment, such as ventilators, were making it difficult to impossible to let hospitals fix their own ventilators. Many have used software locks -- DRM -- and refuse to give the information necessary to keep those machines online.

And thus, it was only inevitable that piracy would step in to fill the void. Vice has the incredible story of a rapidly growing grey market for both hacked hardware and software to keep ventilators running:

In the case of the PB840, a ventilator popularized about 20 years ago and in use ever since, a functional monitor swapped from a machine with a broken breathing unit to one with a broken monitor but a functioning breathing unit won’t work if the software isn’t synced. And so William uses the homemade dongle and Medtronic software shared with him by the Polish hacker to sync everything and repair the ventilator. Medtronic makes a similar dongle, but doesn’t sell it to the general public or independent repair professionals. It’s only available to people authorized by the company to do repairs.

This is yet another reason why the right to repair is so key. It is not, just about people getting to modify things they bought (which still should be a core component of ownership) and it's not just about competition, rather than lock-in from the original manufacturer: sometimes this is about literally saving lives. And it's interesting to see that the "piracy" effort here is basically mimicking previous right to repair fights as well:

The Polish hacker told Motherboard that technicians will take a manufacturer’s repair class in the United States, get the required software, then share it widely through Europe. “It’s officially prohibited to share the software,” they said, speaking of the PB840 software. “But if you know someone, you can just copy it and they cannot track it.”

This grey-market, international supply chain is essentially identical to one used by farmers to repair John Deere tractors without the company’s authorization and has emerged because of the same need to fix a device without a manufacturer's permission.

But, really, in the midst of the pandemic, it's pretty ridiculous that we're relying on piracy to survive. And yet, it's leading to crazy situations like this one:

Ryan Zamudio, a military veteran who owns Veritas Biomedical, a company that repairs ventilators in rural California, said that while he and his staff are authorized to work on some manufacturers’ ventilators, he has to turn to internet forums, word-of-mouth trading, or hope he gets a friendly person on the phone at a manufacturer to get software or a repair manual in order to be able to work on others.

“Service technicians are a community of their own. Sometimes you’ll call someone who works for a manufacturer and they sort of know what you’re facing, so they’ll send you a manual or a link to download the software. They’ll say ‘officially this never happened, and you didn’t get this from me,'” he said. Biomedical technicians also trade software among friends they meet through biomedical society trade groups and forums such as TechNation, 24x7 Magazine and DOTMed. In recent weeks, iFixit has also compiled a huge compendium of repair manuals for ventilators.

There's a lot more in the original article as well -- including a very weak defense of the practice of locking up devices and saying only "certified" repair people can fix things (basically saying they don't want the liability if something goes wrong). However, that's ridiculous, especially in the middle of a pandemic. They'd rather let people die than possibly face a bit of liability? And that risk is pretty minimal. People aren't going to blame the device maker in these situations. It's usually the hospital/medical staff that takes on the liability, rather than the device maker.

And, to be clear, this article is in no way a "defense" of piracy. Indeed, it's yet another example of why piracy is only an example of a failure in the marketplace thanks to overly aggressive laws. If we had sane laws regarding repairing/modifying things you owned, this wouldn't even be an issue. The only reason "piracy" is necessary here is because these companies have expanded and twisted copyright law to block people from actually being able to repair their own devices. And, frankly, I'd argue that's a much bigger attack on "property rights" than any attempt to fix copyright law would ever be.

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Filed Under: covid-19, digital locks, dmca 1201, drm, right to repair, ventilators

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  1. icon
    z! (profile), 13 Jul 2020 @ 11:55am

    Re: Sometimes there are reasons to lock down a device

    The warranty angle only works while it runs- a 10 year old machine isn't going to be covered anyway. A better approach might be to shield the manufacturer only if the "repair" can be independently shown to have caused the tort.

    Or... the manufacturers could just support their products at a reasonable cost and under reasonable conditions.

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