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 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 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 following 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 greater quantities to people who can't afford new products.

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 July 2018

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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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