McDonald’s busted ice cream machines are the stuff of corporate legends, and to this day, no fool-proof solution has emerged. iFixit, the teardown-happy folks who partner with giants like Google and Samsung for service and self-repairs, now have their sights fixed on redeeming the broken McDonald’s ice cream machines for good.
Market analysis says that at any given point in time, one in 10 ice cream machines at the famed Golden Arch outlet is malfunctioning. There’s even a whole crowd-sourced directory of broken machines across the country. When a machine breaks, you call a technician to fix it. But if the machine’s components lock the issues behind error codes that can’t be deciphered by any technician except the company that makes those machines, you have no other option left.
we have a joke about our soft serve machine but we’re worried it won’t work
— McDonald’s (@McDonalds) August 11, 2020
In McDonald’s case, those ice cream machines are made by Taylor. In fact, a majority of Taylor’s profit comes from fixing these damaged machines. If someone tries to hack their way into the software and make sense of those mysterious codes to understand the problem, they will run afoul of copyright laws. Originally put in place to protect piracy from CDs, these copyright laws make it difficult to repair any hunk of metal that is tied closely to software locks. iFixit wants a permanent solution to the curse of broken McDonald’s ice cream machines by getting the laws changed. In partnership with Public Knowledge, iFixit has now asked the Copyright Office to grant a copyright exemption for repairing broken ice cream machines.
Repairs shouldn’t be cream-inal
But getting a Section 1201 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) exemption will only solve half the problem. “That’s why we’re also asking Congress to reintroduce the Freedom to Repair Act, which would make repair tools legal, too, permanently exempting all repair activities from Section 1201 of the DMCA,” says iFixit. Assuming iFixit succeeds, the company proposes making a machine that would decipher error codes and allow a regular technician to fix those machines. That’s a big assumption.
A company named Kytch developed a namesake device built atop a Raspberry Pi that could decipher those error codes. It was well-received until McDonald’s told franchise owners to stop using it, and it was soon followed by a lawsuit courtesy of Taylor. What’s the argument behind the lawsuit, aside from the usual copyright schtick? Taylor says Kytch’s tool posed safety hazards.
iFixit has posted a teardown video of an ice cream machine showing that these machines are fairly easy to fix, but the only hassle is the copyright laws blocking independent repairs. “Access to software tools and manuals for repair shouldn’t be a high-stakes game of digital cat-and-mouse,” writes iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens at Fast Company. The broken McDonald’s ice cream machines situation is a chilling reminder that we don’t really own the hardware we buy because their repairs are locked behind copyright-protected software. Some progress has materialized, and even a lobbying powerhouse like Apple has budged. The McDonald’s saga could be the next avenue for fair industrial repair reforms.