Definition

right to repair (electronics)

Contributor(s): David Essex

Right to repair is the legal concept that allows consumers to repair the products they buy or choose their own service providers instead of going through the manufacturer.

The issue arises because many manufacturers' license agreements and warranties require all repairs (or certain types of repairs) to be performed by the manufacturer or an authorized provider. Proponents of right to repair legislation counter that if someone owns a product, they should be able to do what they want with it, including repair it on their own terms, buy independent replacement parts and hire third-party services.

Since the late 1990s, right to repair has been a hotly contested issue, especially in the electronics, automotive and farm equipment industries. The issue gained a higher profile in 2017 and 2018 when right to repair legislation was filed in several U.S. states and major tech vendors, including Apple, AT&T and Microsoft and their trade associations lobbied against it, claiming safety, security and copyright concerns.

History

Right to repair in the electronics industry dates back to the dawn of the computer era in the mid-1950s, according to the Repair Association (formerly the Digital Right to Repair Coalition). A pivotal event was the 1956 consent decree in a U.S. federal court that found IBM in contempt of anti-monopoly laws and required the computer vendor to allow a market in used equipment and independent repairs. When the consent decree was lifted in 1996, independent repair of computers began a steady decline, the association claims.

Right to repair concerns soon spread to other types of products that have computers or firmware inside of them, such as smartphones, appliances and cars. The issue took on greater urgency when the auto industry began trying to enforce similar restrictions on repairs.

In 2013, Massachusetts passed the Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act, becoming the only state to have such a law. In the following two years, several automobile and truck associations agreed to a memorandum of understanding committing their industries to follow the Massachusetts model in all 50 states. 

By mid-2018, 18 states had electronics right to repair (or fair repair) legislation under consideration. The proposed laws would require manufacturers to make spare parts, repair tools, manuals and firmware available to the general public and independent service providers.

Importance of right to repair

Advocates for the right to repair argue that independent repair providers -- often small "mom and pop" shops -- are vital to local economies. They also say that if a manufacturer has what amounts to a monopoly on repair service, prices rise and quality goes down.

Right to repair is said to have environmental and social benefits. Being able to repair electronic products postpones the day when their recyclable components must be reclaimed and the remaining electronic waste buried in a landfill. It could also alleviate the digital divide by making cheaper refurbished goods available in higher quantities to people who can't afford new products.

Right to repair movement

The right to repair movement are groups of individuals and organizations which advocate for the right for consumers to be able to fix their electronics and other items they have bought and own. The goal of the movement is to empower both individuals and the repair industry.

The right to repair movement’s main argument is that individuals should have the right to repair their electronics and other items through fixing it themselves or hiring a third party. The case relies on the notion that if an individual has bought and owns an item, they should have the right to repair those items. To perform repairs safely and effectively, however, individuals would need service information, specific tools, spare parts and repair software.

Organizations such as Consumer Reports and iFixit try to promote standards which will allow individuals the ability to have access to the tools and information needed to repair their own products. iFixit, for example, states individuals should have the right to:

  • Fix the products they own, either through themselves or through a third party.
  • The manuals or other diagnostic tools vendors may use
  • The ability to unlock jailbreak the software on their devices

The right to repair movement also actively tries to push through fair repair bills and registrations. The idea of planned obsolesce is another example of what the movement attempts to fight against, striving to make electronics last longer.

Software for right to repair

Websites such as IFixIt.com provide software, tips and other information to support people trying to do their own repairs and to track and advocate for right to repair legislation. In addition, a black market has sprung up in firmware.

For example, some American farmers "hack" their John Deere tractors using firmware obtained from a website in Ukraine, according to a 2017 article on the Motherboard section of the Vice.com website. Farmers justified the hack by saying tractors can break down at inconvenient times and must be fixed quickly. Some also expressed fear that the manufacturer would disable equipment remotely if it detected unauthorized repairs since the company required them to sign license agreements prohibiting most such repairs or suing for losses caused by firmware errors.

Some vendors of software that manufacturers use to manage their aftermarket service claim their software can help meet the competitive threat from right to repair legislation by maximizing product uptime and spare parts availability and anticipating repairs and completing them more quickly. Manufacturers can also use such software to price their parts more competitively so they don't lose that business to providers offering service in right to repair jurisdictions.

The industrial internet of things (IIoT) could have an impact on manufacturers' response to right to repair by enabling sensors and analytics to closely monitor products and support preventive maintenance. IIoT sensors are also essential to product-as-a-service offerings, in which manufacturers sell not products, but access to the capabilities they provide. In that model, the manufacturers avoid right to repair claims by retaining ownership.

This was last updated in August 2019

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How important is the right to repair your electronic devices and systems to you?
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This is an interesting concept for sure. I agree that allowing the manufacturer a monopoly on repair, prices rise and quality goes down. Even if you choose to have a manufacturer repair your product, competition is healthy. I recently saw this interesting video on a guy who repairs Tesla cars https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuAMczraBIM
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