The State of “Right to Repair”

The “Right to Repair” refers to a consumer’s ability to diagnose and repair issues with a product they own. Right-to-repair extends to a personal ability
to make repairs, as well as to have a third party do the work. Consumers may choose to contract out tasks to a third party instead of the product’s manufacturer or a party affiliated with or authorized specifically by the manufacturer (for example, a car dealership’s service department).

There are three major product areas where right-to-repair issues are common. They are smartphones and other personal technological devices (including laptops, tablets, and gaming consoles), farm and industrial equipment such as tractors, and personal consumer vehicles. Consumers often want the ability to hire cheaper or more convenient third parties to repair their damaged screens or other common issues with their smartphones, rather than going through Apple or one of its affiliates. Similarly, farmers want to be able to work on their tractors, as they often live far from authorized service centers and may
not have ample cash to pay for unexpected repairs. Many consumers want to be able to do simple work on their vehicles or have work done at their neighborhood auto shop, without paying high dealership costs and without risking losing warranty coverage.

Third-party repair shops often have a vested interest in these policies, as well. Some small auto repair shops, for example, have expressed concern over what will happen to their businesses if big carmakers successfully restrict shop manuals and diagnostic information to franchised dealerships. With cars relying more and more on embedded computers and proprietary software, this is a pressing concern for independent repair shops.

Laws Proposed

A number of recent legislative proposals would enshrine the right of consumers and third parties to repair products. One such law is Nebraska LB 67, the “Fair Repair Act.” This bill would require Apple or any other company selling “digital electronic equipment” in the state to make diagnostic and repair manuals and tools available to owners or independent repairers, and to sell parts to owners or independent repairers. This bill stalled in March, after the state legislature failed to take up the bill during the current session.

Nebraska is one of 12 states that has introduced similar legislation. Other states include Illinois, Wyoming, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York, though none of the bills put forward have yet passed. Apple’s policy towards third-party repairs has proved controversial in the past; customers who had screen repairs conducted by an independent shop saw their phones “bricked,” by a software update, known as Error 53. Apple eventually apologized for this and claimed that the error was the result of a “factory test and was not intended to affect customers.” Apple still kept Touch ID disabled for those phones, as the company determined that an authorized repairer accessing that feature posed a security risk.

John Deere tractors are another source of controversy. Farmers are not permitted to repair the newest generation of farming equipment that comes integrated with extensive software and computer systems.

Attorneys for John Deere asserted, in a 2015 letter to the U.S. Copyright Office, that those who purchase its vehicles do not own them outright. According to this letter, John Deere owners have purchased an “implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle, subject to any warranty limitations, disclaimers or other contractual limitations in the sales contract or documentation.”

Under the company’s existing policies, not only can owners not repair their farming equipment themselves, but independent shops cannot do the job either. This situation causes inconvenience for rural-dwelling farmers and costs them more money than it would otherwise.

Laws Passed

Personal vehicles are one area of right-to-repair policy that has seen significant progress. The state of Massachusetts passed H. 4362 in 2012, a bill titled “An Act protecting motor vehicle owners and small businesses in repairing motor vehicles.” It ensured that independent shops, and by proxy, motor vehicle owners would “have access to information related to the proper and complete diagnosis, service and repair of motor vehicles.” Later that year, voters in the state passed another version by ballot initiative, and in 2013 the state legislature reconciled the two measures.

In 2014, two carmakers’ trade associations reached an agreement with third-party garages and auto shops to establish a national standard in accordance with the Massachusetts law.

According to Automotive News, the two trade groups, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers, agreed that their member companies would make all repair and diagnostic information available by the 2018 model year, as long as lobbying groups for independent repairers and aftermarket parts retailers would refrain from pursuing state-by-state legislation.

In a statement, Mike Stanton, president of the Association of Global Automakers, said, “A patchwork of 50 differing state bills, each with its own interpretations and compliance parameters, doesn’t make sense. This agreement provides the uniform clarity our industry needs.”

Pro

Right-to-repair is a very popular sentiment among consumers and the Massachusetts state ballot initiative to enshrine independent auto repair passed with 87 percent of the vote. Proponents cite the cost savings when people are allowed to either do repairs on equipment themselves or have a third party do those repairs. Another benefit lies in the longer useful life of devices (and the resulting reduction in waste) that happens when people can repair their own devices and equipment rather than simply discarding malfunctioning or broken items and buying anew. There are more general questions of ownership as well – many people have a philosophical problem with being told they can’t do as they please with an item they paid for and own, or even worse, being told they don’t “really” own that product.

There are further considerations relating to the right of farmers to repair their equipment, such as with John Deere tractors. Farmers might live 50 miles away or more from the nearest authorized service center, and they don’t necessarily have the time or resources to get their equipment to a service center or to wait for a representative to come to them. In addition, farmers must be prepared to till their land and harvest their crop when it is ready – the consequences of waiting for an authorized repair might be too severe.

Con

The primary counter-argument used by manufacturers is that allowing owners to make repairs to a feature that involves software would run afoul of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This law effectively placed digital “locks” on software (such as copyright protections on movies) – meaning that someone who tries to circumvent digital protections to repair their equipment could technically do so, but would be breaking the law.

Warranties

In addition to the previously mentioned Massachusetts state legislation, there have historically been more protections for independent repair of automobiles.
The 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act prevents a manufacturer from requiring consumers to have their vehicles serviced at authorized dealerships or to use Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parts, and prevented them from voiding a customer’s warranty for using aftermarket parts. An OEM can only deny a warranty claim, for example, if they can prove that a poorly done repair or bad-quality aftermarket part caused the failure in question.

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