'The Rise of Skywalker' Is a Preview of Our DRM-Fueled Dystopian Future

The Star Wars galaxy could have desperately used right to repair laws.
December 23, 2019, 2:05pm
Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 9
Image: Disney

*This post contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker*

Emperor Palpatine is back with a fleet of planet-killing Star Destroyers, the masses are scared to fight the Final Order, and the last glimmer of hope for the rebellion is nearly stamped out by … overbearing DRM? The Rise of Skywalker is an allegory for the dystopian nightmare we are quickly hurtling toward, one in which we don’t own our droids (or any of our other stuff), their utility hampered by arbitrary decisions and software locks by monopolistic corporations who don’t want us to repair our things.


In Skywalker, C3PO, master of human-cyborg relations, speaks six million languages including Sith (spoken by the Dark Side), but a hard-coded software lock (called Digital Rights Management here on Earth) in his circuitry prevents him from translating Sith aloud to his human users. Presumably, this is to prevent the droid from being used by the Sith, but makes very little sense in the context of a galactic war that has relied so heavily on double agents, spies, and leaked plans and documents. The only explanation that makes any sense is a greedy 3PO manufacturer that sells the Sith language pack as a microtransaction and a galactic Congress that hasn’t passed strong right to repair laws for the junk traders, droid mechanics, and droid users of the galaxy.

C3PO’s software lock is a major plot point in Skywalker as he’s unable to translate a Sith passage that could lead our heroes to the Sith planet that the aforementioned Palpatine is hanging out on. In the end, the rebellion smuggles C3PO to the planet of Kijimi, where a droidsmith named Babu Frik jailbreaks the droid, bypassing the arbitrary software lock and allowing him to translate the important Sith passage. This comes at great personal cost to C3PO, who has his memory wiped. But it is much worse for the people of Kijimi, which is vaporized after the Sith learn the rebels had been there. In Star Wars, DRM quite literally resulted in the destruction of an entire planet.

Perhaps because they couldn’t get these basic consumer rights enshrined a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away, we are increasingly dealing with this exact problem here on Earth. Our coffee makers and our printers have artificial software locks and DRM that prevent basic repair and basic functionality of items we use every day. Our Keurig machines will only use “authorized” pods, our printers will only use “authorized” ink, and every MacBook has a remote kill switch that prevents the use of certain repair parts not authorized by Apple. John Deere uses DRM not only to prevent farmers from fixing their own tractors, but also to do price differentiation on some models of tractors that are literally the same except for software that limits the horsepower of cheaper ones.

Like in Star Wars, there is a rebellion brewing here, too: Farmers have started hacking their tractors in order to repair them on their own, a handful of iPhone repair shops are performing complicated repairs even Apple itself won’t do, and a small but growing coalition of repair mechanics, small business owners, and jailbreakers are lobbying for right to repair laws all over the country that would make software locks that prevent repair illegal, and would make it much easier for consumers to fix their things.

The stakes here aren’t quite planet vaporization or an existential galactic threat—at least not yet—but right to repair laws are good for the environment, good for consumers, and good for our personal freedom. DRM is antidemocratic and a mechanism of control. Certainly something that would be used by the Dark Side.