Fighting for the Right to Repair

When California Polytechnic State University student Kyle Wiens dropped his Apple iBook G3 and the operating system slowed to a crawl, he decided to fix it. Coming from a long line of tinkerers, Wiens was confident he could do it. But when he searched the internet for the laptop’s manual, he came up empty handed.

“I looked for the manual online and couldn’t find it. In fact, I could find very little on how to do it myself. Eventually, I fixed it, but it was a lot harder than it needed to be,” recalled Wiens.

Wiens thought it wasn’t right that Apple didn’t have any information on how to repair their products.

He came away from the experience convinced that repair manuals should be free and accessible to everyone. Thus iFixit, a site dedicated to making home repair possible, was born. The site now boasts almost 30,000 free repair manuals and it’s evolved into a movement pitting consumers against manufacturer copyright laws in a fight for the right to repair. Companies claim that releasing repair manuals violates copyright laws, but repair advocates like Wiens believe ownership passes to the consumer upon purchase.

“Repairing is environmentally friendly, economical and fun,” says Wiens, “Companies want to use copyright law or even planned obsolescence – that is, engineer their products to give out after a certain number of years – but consumers should have the right to decide to repair their purchases, rather than re-buy.”

Every third Wednesday in Manhattan, the Fixers’ Collective exercises their right to repair. Hosted by Hack Manhattan, the group invites members of the public to bring their broken appliances and electronics in for a free fix. Composed of amateur tinkerers as well as professional engineers, the room at Hack Manhattan buzzes with energy as members peel back the outer shells on items like a broken coffee maker, a laptop that isn’t holding a charge, and a 1980s drum machine picked up at a flea market.

Tarek Omar, a hacker who runs a pop-up repair and refurbish shop in flea markets, tinkers with the circuit board on the drum machine. Its owner, Nico DePierro, an electronic music artist, likes to fix things, too.

“The more time I spend with an object the more connected I feel to it,” DePierro says. “I can easily get a functional one of these [drum machines] from eBay for ten bucks, but this is better.”

Omar, meanwhile, suggests that DePierro replace the power source with a new one that will enable the device to connect to a USB port. He likes to refurbish objects with new uses as well as repair them.

Companies like Apple, Toshiba and John Deere, however, often make it difficult, if not illegal, to repair and refurbish their products. Under current copyright laws and licensing agreements, they have a case, “If you read the fine print,” Omar says, “You’ll find that it’s illegal. It’s illegal to open something up and figure out how it works. It’s considered their property.”

Manufacturers argue that the workings of their products are “trade secrets,” but Gay Gordon-Byrne, a repair advocate leading the charge on the Right to Repair Act, thinks they just want a monopoly on aftermarket repairs.

“Apple was willing to let us pass Right to Repair legislation as long as they could claim their glass as proprietary,” she says. The glass! Well, it turns out, they make about a billion a year replacing broken screens.”

The Right to Repair Act, up for consideration in 12 states, would require manufacturers to provide owners and private businesses with fair access to service information, security updates and replacement parts, is up for consideration in 12 different states. The State of New York stands to be the first state to pass the Right to Repair Act A8192 and S618, sponsored by Joseph D. Morelle and Phil Boyle, respectively.

A leading supporter of the bill, Wiens sees massive repercussions for consumers and small businesses should it fail to pass, “If Right to Repair doesn’t pass, Apple could have the power to shut down independently owned cell phone repair shops, even shoe repair shops could be impacted – repair touches everything!”

As smart appliances infiltrate homes, the need to update standing copyright laws is even more urgent. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, breaking protection over a device’s programming is a breach of copyright. The law was created to prevent copying of DVD’s, but manufacturers now use it to claim proprietary rights over the software that comes with thermostats, tractors, and even baby monitors.

Lyle Gore, a member of the Board of Directors for UNEDA – an alliance for network equipment dealers, explains, “Imagine if you sell a house with a smart refrigerator in it to new owners. Now they own the refrigerator. But the manufacturer says they have to re-buy the license to the software in that refrigerator.”

That’s why the law firm Jochum, Shore, and Trossevin created the YODA bill, or the You Own Devices Act. It’s modest legislation that would amend the DMC Act to transfer proprietary rights to device software to the owners of the device.

It might not seem like much, but both YODA and the Right to Repair Act have profound implications for consumers, companies, the environment and our culture. Without the Right to Repair, consumers and companies face the prospect of replacing electronics and appliances every few years. According to the iFixit site, Americans alone generate 3.4 million tons of e-waste per year. Meanwhile, millions of people go without access to technology like smartphones. A repair movement could reduce waste, provide people with low-cost access to repaired electronics, and create jobs in developing countries.

Finally, fixing just feels good. As Rabbi Daniel Klein of the Fixers’ Collective quipped, “My mother taught me to tinker. Why replace something when you can open it up, look inside and find out how it works?”