Future Tense

Save the Right to Hack

The good kind, of course.

printing press.
The author’s homemade printing press, made from an Ikea nightstand.

Charles Duan

It was not necessity that was the mother of invention, but rather frustration during wedding planning that led me to build a printing press out of Ikea furniture. Companies were quoting prices upward of $10 per copy for letterpress invitations, and I figured there had to be a way I could make them myself. And after a couple of flashes of ingenuity, about $200 of equipment, and a whole mess of ink and sawdust on my carpet, I had turned an Ikea Kullen nightstand into a functional printing press.

In this Futurography series on the future of ownership, it’s worth contemplating the full range of uses that owners can put to their possessions, and do-it-yourself represents the best of those uses in my mind. But technologies and laws are beginning to shift what it means to own something, and there are real questions on the horizon about where DIYers fit into this changing landscape of ownership.

ikea kullen.
An Ikea Kullen nightstand.


Hacking is often associated with malicious computer activity, but it has a more positive older meaning: repurposing a system or device to a clever and unexpected use. And some of the most brilliant hacks involve physical things. The website Ikea Hackers collects examples like mine of repurposing Ikea furniture in all manner of ways: file boxes turn into an expandable coffee table; a mirror becomes a wall-mounted dining table. This DIY experimentation isn’t limited to Ikea furniture, of course. Some enjoy circuit-bending, the practice of rearranging the wires in toys to produce unintentional music. Others heavily modify their cars to achieve efficiencies of 100 miles per gallon.

DIY creativity is not new—it has origins at least in the arts and crafts movement of the late 1800s, the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic, and American pioneerism—but it has experienced a modern resurgence. Consumer-innovators spend an estimated $20.2 billion a year on creative activities, according to one study. And new technologies have of course helped grow DIY practices: 3-D printing puts manufacturing capabilities into home enthusiasts’ hands, and the internet makes it ever easier for creators to share ideas and techniques with one another.

But as helpful as new technology has been, DIYers depend also on one thing as old as the hills: traditional notions of property ownership.

Ownership of a thing grants a number of privileges that the owner alone enjoys over the thing—what lawyers sometimes call the “bundle of rights.” Chief among this bundle is the right of possession, or the right of the owner to use property in any way desired (short of violating the law or harming others, of course). In 1765 the legal commentator William Blackstone described the “free use, enjoyment, and disposal” of property as an “absolute right, inherent in every Englishman.”

The right of possession is what allows for hacking, for a consumer to use a product in a way not intended or even desired by the manufacturer or seller of that product. But that right is quickly being undermined today. Product manufacturers more and more often install tiny locks on their products before sale, keeping purchasers from fully exploring and enjoying those products that they own.

Some of these locks are physical. Kyle Wiens, founder of iFixit, has noted Apple’s recent trend of using glue and proprietary screws to hold MacBooks together, making them nearly impossible to repair, let alone modify. Other manufacturers use software or electronics—oftentimes described as digital rights management, or DRM—to prevent use of third-party parts or customizations. Lexmark designed printers that would lock up when used with nongenuine ink; Keurig proposed (and then somewhat walked back) a coffee machine that would brew only authorized grounds.

The more troubling locks, however, are ones based not on physics or electronics but on law. Everyone has seen (or, more likely, has accepted without seeing) end-user license agreements, those agonizingly long legal documents attached to shrink wrap or displayed on software. These agreements regularly disallow purchasers—owners—from fully using their own purchased products. Sometimes the penalty of violation is relatively small—voiding the warranty for example—but manufacturers have used the law to add sharper teeth to those agreements.

Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, for example, makes it a crime to circumvent in certain situations “technological protection measures” (that is, DRM) imposed on a product, and product manufacturers have sought to use this provision to prevent work on tractors, medical devices, and mobile phones (though courts have in some cases rejected Section 1201’s power to do so).

More troublingly, a federal appeals court ruled in February that a manufacturer who owns a patent on a product (in this case, a printer toner cartridge) has the power to set conditions on use of that product, such that violation of any condition is punishable as an infringement of the patent. In other words, if you modify your Internet-of-Things cat feeder against the manufacturer’s will, you’re not just clever—you might be a patent infringer.

Product manufacturers have various reasons for locking down their products—to prevent accidental injuries from misuse or to block aftermarket competitors, for example. But forcing consumers to use their possessions only as directed discourages creativity. Consider one practice of replacing the ink in printer cartridges with food coloring, for printing on cakes. Professor von Hippel observes that if the printer manufacturer disallowed refilling ink cartridges, then this sort of creative discovery might never have been made.

In this clash of DIY culture and DRM control, there is an important role for those who engage in product hacking and those who love what they do. Companies that make products often have a vision of how they would like their users and competitors to behave, and use law and technology to force compliance with that vision. But the messier, more unexpected reality benefits everyone, from the hackers who enjoy the challenge of invention, to the public who benefits from new knowledge, to the companies themselves who regularly take up and profit from their customers’ ideas. DIYers need to remind companies to see beyond the tips of their corporate lawyers’ noses, to see the future benefits of giving consumers full ownership.

Companies, for their part, have an obligation to listen to this community and to encourage DIY experimentation. Consider the situation of the Ikea Hackers website from a few years ago. The website has no affiliation with Ikea the furniture company, and the company, protective of control over its name and trademarks, ordered the website to shut down. Enormous public outcry ensued, leading Ikea to completely reverse course, not only allowing the website to stay up but going so far as to invite the website’s founder to a tour of Ikea’s Concept Center and a personal meeting with the CEO.

Between a shutdown strategy and a build-up partnership, did Ikea make the right choice? Certainly it worked for me. I went shopping there last week, and I’m already thinking of what I can do with this new bed.

This article is part of the future of ownership installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technological issue and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.