Fighting For the “Right to Repair”

Just when you thought corporations couldn’t possibly find one more way to rip off their customers, they have. In recent years, manufacturers of everything from iPhones to tractors have found ways to restrict consumers’ ability to repair the products they buy by anyone but a licensed repair facility.

Gone are the days when your “handy” family member could take a broken item into the garage or toolshed and tinker with it until it was fixed. Gone also are the days when you could just take the broken item to your friendly neighborhood repair shop and get it repaired for a fraction of what it would cost to replace.

Nowadays, corporations have all but outlawed this centuries-old practice by incorporating digital “locks” into their products, restricting access to their repair manuals, or employing user agreements that force buyers to agree not to attempt repairs themselves.

The excuse they use for this egregious practice is that their products contain proprietary software which is their “intellectual property” that must be protected. The real reason is that they can make more after-sale money by forcing you to either use a repair shop they have licensed (for a fee), or give up and buy a new product, and thus make even more money. It gives the term “planned obsolescence” a whole new meaning.

Another well-worn excuse is the safety factor, with such firms as Apple claiming that untrained repair people could cause lithium batteries to explode or catch fire. Apple, however, was employing this practice years ago on such products as the desktop iMac, which never contained lithium batteries. John Deere makes similar claims regarding its quarter-million-dollar tractors, sometimes sending Nebraska farmers 70-80 miles away for pricey repairs at the lone authorized dealer.

A recent Salon.com article put it this way:

“This treacherous corporate scheme does more than gouge buyers on the original purchase. Using both legal ruses and digital lockdowns, major manufacturers are quietly attempting to outlaw the natural instinct of us humanoids to fiddle with and improve the material things we own in order to charge us to fix it. Indeed, the absurdity and arrogance of their overreach is even more basic: They’re out to corporatize the very idea of ‘owning.’ ” The article went on to observe: “Such an attack on individual and independent fixers is unprecedented—with cabals in industry after industry asserting their ownership control far after sales.”

Smithsonian Magazine, in an article addressing this topic, interviewed Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the non-profit The Repair Association. She told the magazine, “Most people experience the problem, but they have no idea that there’s a solution, and they have no idea that manufacturers are behaving badly.”

But some people do, and are fighting back. A number of states have introduced “Right to Repair” or “Fair Repair” legislation. The Guardian, reporting on Nebraska’s attempt in March (which failed) said the bill would have required “companies to provide consumers and independent repair shops access to service manuals, diagnostic tools and parts so they aren’t limited to a single supplier.” Unfortunately, corporations are fighting back against any attempt to curtail their golden goose, and are able to succeed because this issue isn’t on most people’s radar yet. And, of course, because money talks quite loudly to the average politician.

Apple was one of the loudest objectors to Nebraska’s proposed legislation, and was successful. Minnesota and Tennessee also failed to pass similar legislation over the past few months.

But a handful of other states are still working on the issue, and some consumer activists have taken the matter into their own hands, according to Popular Mechanics, which reports that the lobbying group Repair.org has been leading the push.

Smithsonian Magazine described another way consumers are fighting back, in adopting work-arounds such as those found on the website iFixit, which provides advice and instructions on how to repair numerous products. It calls the site “a sort of repair Wiki, with some one million users sharing knowledge.”

So although the consumer came late to the battle, as it were, the fight is finally on, and Billshark wants to urge you to contact your congressperson to ask for right-to-repair legislation in your state. Your wallet depends on it.

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