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There are 2 models of multimeter, A and B. Physically they are absolutely identical, yet model B has some functions unlocked, that are locked in model A. B costs about $400 more than A. If one tampers with model A, features from model B can be unlocked manually.

Now, if I buy model A, and unlock features of model B, is this illegal, could the company sue me for this? Granted, I do not distribute information on how to do this, and use it just for personal use.

As I see it - I bought the tool from them, and since the software was already on there, I am free to do what I please. I understand their intent, but since I paid for the device, which already had the software on it, and I just accessed it, I do not think it qualifies as theft. The moment they handed me receipt, I have ownership of the device and everything on it, right?

Is it legal to do this?

  • You tagged this question as both "United States" and as "European Union". So if one wants to answer comprehensively, they would have to check the laws of 50 US states and 28 EU states. Don't you think that's demanding a bit much? – Philipp Apr 11 '19 at 10:33
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    The US has recently passed a ruling that makes it legal to circumvent technological measures that protect copyright (like copy protection) when you repair or modify a device. I wouldn't be surprised if one of these companies argued that drilling a hole into the case to access a button on the PCB is circumventing copyright protection measures. 😅 – Stefano Palazzo Apr 11 '19 at 10:39
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    I don't believe this should be closed. Yes, a complete answer including all possible jurisdictions would be very large, but its acceptable to answer for an individual jurisdiction. Also is it possible for states to have different laws on this? – Paul Johnson Apr 11 '19 at 15:22
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    Does this unlocking of features involve installing firmware or software that isn't already present on the device (e.g. pirating and installing a more feature-rich ROM from the company), or simply toggling an internal bit that specifies which model it is? – forest Apr 12 '19 at 22:08
  • @forest Internal modification. – Atizs Apr 13 '19 at 10:17
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GENERAL:

In the United States it is illegal under the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) to break any form of Digital Rights Management (DRM) to enable software features you didn't pay for.

The exceptions some have mentioned here do NOT apply to unlocking features that are not paid for. Someone also asked if there was a license, and again, that is not relevant — The bright line is that it's illegal to circumvent DRM to activate software you didn't pay for.

EU nations are subject to the WIPO treaty, which includes DRM. I am less familiar, but there is a WIPO site with a great deal of information.

OP @Atizs said:

As I see it - I bought the tool from them, and since the software was already on there, I am free to do what I please. I understand their intent, but since I paid for the device, which already had the software on it, and I just accessed it, I do not think it qualifies as theft. The moment they handed me receipt, I have ownership of the device and everything on it, right?

Wrong.

You have ownership of the HARDWARE, and the right to use the software as enabled at the time of purchase, or per some specified agreement. You do not have the right to circumvent Digital Rights Management to activate unpaid for features.

Similarly you do not have the right to download the software and distribute or sell it, though you CAN sell the whole device as purchased.

Many software packages have locked features that require an additional fee to unlock. For instance, Adobe allows you to download their entire suite of applications free, but you have to pay to activate them.

In the example of multimeter A or B, and you purchased the one with fewer features at a lower price, but then hacked it to unlock software you didn't pay for, it "sounds like" you circumvented Digital Rights Management software, which is illegal for the purpose of activiating software or features not pay for.

HAVING SAID THAT

What did you have to do to "access" their software? Did it involved cracking any sort of encryption or digital rights management? Under the US DMCA, if you activated the software by circumventing or hacking or disabling DRM, it is against the law.

WIPO also has clauses that prohibit circumventing DRM, I am less familiar.

But if the device could have those features turned on and there wasn't really a DRM protecting them, that may be different. Without giving exact instructions can you say generally what you did? Did you JTAG the device? Download the code from the mpu and alter it? Solder jumpers that changed configuration??

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    There have been similar situations with hardware. You buy a server with 8 cores. The company actually installs a server with 16 cores, of which 8 are disabled. If later you decide you want a server with 16 cores, you pay the price difference and the complete 16 cores are enabled. If it was legal for you to enable all 16 cores without paying, servers wouldn't be sold that way, which would make upgrading a lot more expensive and inconvenient. – gnasher729 May 5 '19 at 17:40
  • Exactly. And before the DMCA it was LEGAL to circumvent this stuff. There was a company that made software that bypassed that kind of DRM for ProTools and the sold it legally. ProTools activation turns on/off hardware and software features based on the dongle. The company selling the crack (Sidney Urshon Music) ceased operations after the DMCA made it illegal. – Myndex May 6 '19 at 6:14
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You bought the multimeter, you bought a licence to use the software

As such, you must comply with the terms of the licence which came with the multimeter. It is unlikely that this allows you to hack the software.

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    I checked the manual for my Multimeter, literally no mention of a license of any kind. – Stefano Palazzo Apr 11 '19 at 13:04
  • A licence in the manual wouldn’t be valid - have you checked the box? – Dale M Apr 11 '19 at 21:10
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    I have. I've also checked a bunch of other retail packaging and and no mention of a license. They do all have copyright notices with "all rights reserved", but you're not talking about copyright here, correct? – Stefano Palazzo Apr 12 '19 at 6:45
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    Do you have any basis of why, under Netherlands law, such licence terms (some text included in manual or packaging) would be binding in any way whatsoever unless the customer intentionally chose to agree to them? I don't know much about peculiarities of Netherlands, but the general EU approach is that such licences are neither valid nor required to use the product; legalese in the manual can't create contractual obligations for a consumer. – Peteris Apr 14 '19 at 0:28

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