CFP: MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory

Submission deadline: May 29, 2020

Conference date(s):
September 9, 2020 - September 11, 2020

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Conference Venue:

Department of Politics , University of Manchester
Manchester, United Kingdom

Topic areas


Smart Devices: Software, User Agreements and Ownership Rights

Convenors: Dr Joseph T F Roberts (University of Birmingham) and Dr David Lawrence (University of Edinburgh)

Usually, when an owner purchases an object, they acquire all rights the owner had over the property (Thomas, 2014, p. 30), which in the case of most consumer goods include the rights to possess, use, and dispose of their newly acquired property. Although these rights are not absolute (e.g. I can’t use a hammer I own to assault people with, drive a car I own on public roads unless I tax it, insure it and have a licence to do so or sell alcohol I have legally bought to children), owners possess wide ranging and open-ended rights to use their property and exclude others from doing so.

When it comes to smart devices, however, this is not always the case. Manufacturers of smart devices constrain purchaser’s rights to use their property as they see fit by retaining intellectual property rights over the software, binding owners with user agreements (Thomas, 2018, p. 240), and using technical measures to prevent owners circumventing clauses in agreements.

Firstly, although the individual is the owner of the hardware, they only have a licence to use the software in ways compatible with the limits outlined in the user agreement. As a consequence individuals cannot access and/or modify the code on their devices, meaning that home innovators can’t enhance their functionality (Torrance and von Hippel, 2015) or learn how their device work to know how to repair them.

 Secondly, many smart devices are dependent on updates to the software to ensure correct functioning. This gives manufacturers of these devices the power to render them useless or vulnerable to cyber-attack by discontinuing updates; thus diminishing the value of people’s property. For example, Sonos, the speaker manufacturer, recently announced it was withdrawing updates from some of its older models, potentially rendering them useless in the future (Kleinman, 2020).

Thirdly, manufacturers of smart devices use both user agreements and technical solutions to preclude people from repairing devices themselves or using third party repair services, tying them in to more costly, official, repair services. John Deere, the farming equipment manufacturer, has installed software on their newer models of tractors which make ‘unauthorised’ repair by local mechanics impossible (Koebler, 2017).

In short, user agreements allow manufacturers to significantly limit people’s right to use the devices they own. As smart devices permeate more and more industries what rights we should have over them will become an increasingly pressing concern (Thomas 2018 p. 242, Perzanowski and Schultz 2016).

The aim of this workshop is to inquire into whether limitations on people’s ownership rights over smart devices are morally permissible or not. We invite contributions addressing questions including, but not limited to:

· If these prohibitions are permissible, what the reasons are for upholding these limitations on use? Are some ways of enforcing them permissible and others not?

· What are the benefits of moving away from a sale/ownership model towards a licensing model for technology? Are there ways of achieving these goals without limiting user’s rights?

· If these limitations are impermissible, why are they impermissible? What can be done to address the situation?

· Is property the best framework for addressing these issues? Are there other ways of protecting people’s rights to use objects?

· Is the problem with user agreements that users are unlikely to have given genuine informed consent to them? 

· Should users be granted greater access to the code their device runs? If so, why and under what conditions?

· Is the case for granting users greater rights over their devices stronger for some types of devices (e.g. medical devices, security devices, life-saving devices) than others (e.g. smartphones)?

· Are limitations on use more worrying for attached and implanted devices than for devices we interact with less?

· Is it permissible for manufacturers to cease to offer updates? If so, when?

· Should users be granted a ‘right to repair’ smart devices? If so, what would a right to repair entail?

Contributions can be from a range of disciplines which address questions of ownership and technology including: political philosophy, philosophy of technology, bioethics, legal theory, law, socio-legal studies, regulatory theory, policy studies, political science, and political economy.

Please send abstracts of up to 500 words, blinded for peer review, to the 29th of May 2020. 

Supporting material

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Custom tags:

#Manchester, #Bioethics, #Political Theory, #Ownership Rights , #Smart Devices, #Intellectual Property Law, #Legal Theory