Consumers and businesses want to be able to repair the products they have invested in. Industry says no.
If you are an engineer and your phone — or toaster, TV, or printer — is on the fritz, you’ve got two options: Tinker with it or toss it. But most people only have one option, and that’s the landfill. The infiltration of electronics into more and more products on the market means that repairs are increasingly beyond the scope of “handy” people as well as professional repair businesses, which can’t access the needed components and knowledge needed to keep equipment operational. Some manufacturers, such as Apple, handle repairs exclusively in house, but this can be inconvenient and costly.
Increasingly, consumers and businesses are becoming fed up with these costs, and the wider costs of planned obsolescence and our disposable society. In response, “fair repair” legislation is being introduced to enable consumers and repair businesses access to parts and diagnostic information.
Much of this legislation is based on a 2012 Massachusetts automotive right to repair law that compelled auto manufacturers nationwide to provide mechanics with diagnostic information needed to repair their cars, which ultimately became de-facto nationwide.
Massachusetts is considering legislation that would compel manufacturers to offer independent repair shops diagnostic and repair information, technical updates, and corrections to firmware. New Jersey is contemplating the “Fair Repair Act,” which would require electronics manufacturers to sell parts and tools to consumers and independent repair companies. Minnesota’s proposed Fair Repair legislation would give independent repair providers the right to obtain repair documentation, parts, and equipment. In the US, 12 states introduced such legislation in 2017. So far, none of these acts have passed.
However, individual companies have lost court battles involving consumers’ rights to repair. Apple backed down from threats to void warrantees on phones that had glass screens replaced by independent repair businesses. The Supreme Court ruled against Lexmark in a case involving the company’s ban on refilling printer ink cartridges. The court affirmed the doctrine of “patent exhaustion,” which says that once a patent owner sells a product, it cannot later claim the product’s use or sale is infringing. This principle affirms buyers’ rights to own and use the products they have purchased, and prevents the patent owners from controlling those goods after the point of sale — and interfering with rights to resell, repair, and understand those purchased goods.
In the EU, the European Parliament recently passed a motion calling for regulation to compel manufacturers to make their products more easily repairable. In France, “planned obsolescence” is now an offence punishable by up to $354,000 (€300,000) or up to 5% of the manufacturer’s annual sales in that country, whichever is higher.
In the electronics industry, which has largely lobbied against fair repair legislation, objections center on safety and warranty issues. Unauthorized repairs could void the warranty on expensive electronics or expose the repair person to dangerous elements. Manufacturers of medical equipment worry that patient safety could be compromised by improperly repaired equipment.
Repair business owners, however, say their livelihood is threatened by the growing number of devices and machines that they can no longer repair, due to manufacturers limiting access to parts and knowledge. “We have a growing list of devices that we cannot service at all,” said Jason DeWater, a professional repair technician who owns iFixOmaha.
Others, such as farmers or hospitals in rural areas who can’t easily access a manufacturer for time-sensitive repairs, and businesses with limited budgets for replacing expensive equipment, say their businesses can’t absorb the costs, delays, and inconveniences when products fail and can’t be quickly repaired. Security experts also say that more openness would help industry develop better products and, as the Internet of Things expands, identify security holes. “Security through obscurity doesn’t work,” said Rachel Kalmar, a data scientist and fellow at Harvard University.
There’s also the roadblock of parts obsolescence. When manufacturers upgrade devices, they also upgrade components, and eventually, some of those original parts disappear from the marketplace. That’s the problem Steve Chamberlain, encountered when he went looking for a now obsolete DB-19 connector. “I used them to build new equipment that’s physically compatible with some vintage equipment,” said the author of the blog Big Mess O’ Wires. He eventually found a manufacturer willing to resurrect the old connector — if he ordered a minimum of 10,000 pieces. He did just that, and for a while controlled the world’s only supply of the connectors.
Some manufacturers are deliberately eliminating components in order to prevent consumers from repairing their devices. Teardowns of the new Samsung Galaxy Note 8 found glue instead of fasteners widely to hold the device together.
In the end, the issue is pitting the owners’ of private property and small repair businesses against manufacturers, whose practices are increasingly in the spotlight as their products fail, with no fix in sight.