William Hudson ‘24
The right to repair is a concept which affects the consumers of specific technology: newer vehicles, electronic devices, and high-tech equipment such as that found in hospitals. Because a consumer owns the product they have purchased, the right to repair concludes that the consumer should be able to repair or modify said product without excessive difficulty. Groups composed of major technology enterprises lobby against the right to repair as controlling product repairs leads to incredible profits. Despite this, new legislation is consistently being proposed and movements are springing up in support of consumer rights.
Manufacturers have procedurally obfuscated their products and refuse to publish technical documentation to the detriment of consumers. This prevents people from making necessary repairs to their hardware and discourages modifications. Companies are unfortunately incentivized to make repairs more difficult, as reducing competition permits predatory prices and service deterioration. Both soaring prices and lack of service cause consumers to buy replacement products when a single component malfunctions in an otherwise operational system. Monopolizing upon repairs is anti-capitalistic as it rejects competition from other manufacturers and independent repair and modification shops are forced to operate sub-optimally.
The right to repair is an issue of ownership, specifically the line between producer and consumer. In the case of a book, the purchaser clearly owns the entire copy. However, the consumer does not own the rights to the story within the covers and cannot produce copies at their discretion. The same should apply to electronics: the consumer should entirely own the hardware which they have purchased, but not any rights to pre-installed software.
Despite this clarification, companies must be obliged, if not to provide verbose hardware handbooks and documentation, to faithfully produce and distribute any part or other protected component of a product. This prevents the purchase of replacements when a product is mostly functional and permits some competition through independent repair shops.
The John Deere company is a fitting example of what happens when the following directives are ignored. They sell farming equipment which requires both proprietary software and fully functioning hardware to run, meaning a single malfunction will prevent any use of the machinery. John Deere has not published any documentation for its equipment and only licensed engineers may repair equipment, which is both expensive and can be devastating in the case of a malfunction during the harvest season. John Deere has now cost many farmers large sums of money, resulting in multiple class-action lawsuits.
John Deere and other corporations’ spokespeople see the issue differently. They argue that people can damage themselves and the product when they attempt repairs or modifications. However, people are going to attempt modifications when they want, and public documentation only lessens the already small risk. Furthermore, companies argue that their products are too complex to be repaired with ordinary equipment, but most repairs are simple fixes and modifications are regularly minor.
Finally, companies describe the stalling of innovation if consumers are not regularly forced to upgrade their devices. This fearmongering has been disproven by successful companies which have embraced the right to repair philosophy in their design, still producing competitive products, such as Framework, an upgradable laptop producer.
Legislation regarding the right to repair has been presented in the United States and the European Union. Jurisdictions seek to reform copyright law, force the supply of spare parts and documentation, and combat electronic waste. Electronic waste has been a large focus of many right to repair bills, as less than a quarter of electronic devices are responsibly disposed of and each contains chemicals that are incredibly harmful to the environment.
Like other areas, Canada has seen a struggle between corporate lobbyists and consumers with the latter leading slightly. Bill C-272, “An Act to Amend the Copyright Act,” targets technological protection measures and passed its second reading in the House of Commons unanimously. However, an earlier bill in Ontario was struck down by the Conservative Party after heavy lobbying from an industry group representing some of the largest computing companies.
It is increasingly clear that companies opposing the right to repair only have profit in mind, and that sacrificing consumer rights to maintain profit is acceptable to them. Those who purchase technology should be given every utility necessary to repair and upgrade their goods at their discretion. Legislation, though slow to pass due to lobbying, supports the right to repair. One can look forward to a future where everyone has the right to repair.
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