A Manufacturer Monopoly
Generally, there are two kinds of electronic engineer: the professional and the hobbyist. The professional mainly learns about electronics and their workings to further careers, and pursues other activities during their free time. Typically, these individuals learn tricks of the trade from either other professionals or during study (such as University).
The second kind of engineer, the hobbyist, pursues electronics out of interest rather than career. Hobbyists possess an active interest in taking stuff apart, salvaging, designing new projects for fun, and learning about electronics to expand their capabilities so that more interesting projects can be undertaken. If you fall into the second category, chances are you have repaired electronics at some point. Personally, not a single day has gone by where I have not needed to repair something whether it be the control panel on a bread maker, the treadmill, house electrics, or even computers.
Buy a new computer? No thanks, I will upgrade and repair my old one!
Now imagine if the police broke down your front door and seized your equipment because you repaired an old TV or fixed up an iPhone. While the truth is that this is an unlikely scenario for an individual, it is a concern for a repair business. According to Apple, only Apple employees have the right to open and repair Apple products (apart from Macs, which repair shops used to be able to obtain licenses).
If a non-Apple worker (such as a someone who works for a standard repair shop) opens an iPhone, they risk breaking the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Not only are iPhone repairs by non-Apple employees potentially illegal, getting replacement parts and obtaining the necessary technical documentation which describes repair procedures is next to impossible.
Manufacturers such as Apple and John Deere have gone out of their way to ensure that only they can repair their products, claiming their reason is to protect intellectual property and to keep their proprietary software on embedded systems safe from plagiarism. This has led to “mini-monopolies” in the repair market which significantly harms small repair businesses as potential customers are forcibly diverted to the original manufacturer.
But let’s ignore the business side of repairing for a second. If you purchase something, is it now your individual right to purchase replacement parts and repair the item yourself? What about relevant repair documentation and technical specifications? After an item leaves a factory, is it still under the ownership of the original manufacturer?
The "Right to Repair" Bill
Luckily, there are some governing bodies and lawyers who feel that manufacturers have stepped over the line. The main driving force for preventing manufacturers from being the only option for repairs is due to the monopoly that they assert over their products.
Monopolies are not allowed to exist for many reasons including their ability to control the market (making it unfair), the destruction of innovation, and holding all dependents ransom (i.e. stupendously high prices with no alternative). Large companies wishing to overtake another business in the same market typically have to get government permission (or some watchdog group) to make the purchase.
A classic case was in the United Kingdom when the grocery chain Safeway began to fail and thus went to auction. Morrison’s (another shopping chain) initially made a bid which eventually triggered the other giants (Tesco, Asda, and Sainsbury) to also submit bids to Safeway. However, if Tesco, Asda, or Sainsbury obtained Safeway then that store could potentially have a market monopoly. Therefore, the government prevented those businesses from bidding and allowed Morrison to purchase Safeway.
This is the driving force behind the legal push designed to stop manufacturers from preventing people fixing their products, obtaining spare parts, and receiving technical documentation. Monopolies are not supposed to be allowed to exist in any market, and this includes the repair market! These monopoly laws are lawmakers' primary approach to creating the “Right to Repair” law.
Allowing business and individuals to repair equipment may help the environment and reduce electronic waste. Image courtesy of maxpixel.
The “Right to Repair” concept has reached 5 states in the US (Nebraska, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Kansas) in the past month. Bills have been introduced to help consumers and repair businesses to access technical information and parts to repair their own equipment. A similar bill focusing on the automotive industry has been in the works since 2009, with several states passing the bill into a law.
Such a move will not only allow for a more competitive repair market but could help businesses and individuals alike who want to obtain genuine parts rather than parts scrapped from a broken device or of suspicious origin.
If a "Right to Repair" bill were to pass, not only could it help individuals and repair businesses alike, it could also help the environment in the long term with people fixing devices instead of replacing them.
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For years, manufacturers such as Apple have enjoyed closed software, repair rights, and a complete monopoly on their products from start to finish. Providing next to no information for troubleshooting and basic repairs may be a thing of the past if these bills are passed and inspire other countries and countries to jump on board and pass similar laws. These laws could even benefit the hobby market with more projects focused on hacking devices and altering functionality to make customized electronic parts. The industry as a whole needs to recognize that the world is changing; device locking, DMCA protection, anti-piracy systems, and secretive workings cause more harm than good.
AAC got to interview Gay Gordon-Byrne, Executive Director of The Repair Association about the issue. You can read her interview below if you'd like to learn more: