With 20 states considering Right to Repair bills this legislative cycle, the fight over who can fix the stuff consumers buy and own has become a national policy debate, bringing together an eclectic mix of advocates from across the tech, medical, and farming industries. Even presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) has addressed the issue, indicating that she would support a national right-to-repair law that applies to farm equipment.
On Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held a workshop, "Nixing the Fix: A Workshop on Repair Restrictions," which focused on testimony from experts on how manufacturers limit repairs by consumers and independent repair shops. The event highlighted the growing momentum—and potential for more federal involvement—behind the issue.
"The Nixing the Fix workshop was a big day for Right to Repair," says Nathan Proctor, the director of the Right to Repair Campaign for US PIRG, a consumer rights organization. "Perhaps manufacturers thought they could wait out our side—that eventually people would just become used to manufacturers deciding for people when they can fix devices that we own. But instead of petering out, calls for action are growing, drawing interest from more states, now the FTC. I wouldn't be surprised if Congress took note of the campaign next."
Repair advocates are pushing for state measures that would require manufacturers to make tools, parts, and information more accessible to consumers and independent third-party repair shops. But major manufacturers like Apple and John Deere have pushed back aggressively against such legislation, often using copyright law to preserve their monopoly over the post-purchase repair market. As a result, consumers have fewer options to fix their own products when they break—for a period of time Apple was disabling iPhone 6s when the company detected work had been done at independent repair shops, and John Deere continues to force many tractor owners to travel hundreds of miles to authorized retailers for simple fixes to farm equipment.
"The basic question is why is repair being monopolized?" says Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, a trade association representing independent repair workers. "It is just money. If you dig in any one of these corners you will find a pot of money."
According to Repair.org, there are over 3 million repair and reuse professionals operating in the U.S. Those independent operators help people save money and prevent the pileup of electronic waste. But tech firms like Apple are quick to argue that passing right-to-repair legislation would put consumers and manufacturers at risk. George Kirchner, who attended the panel on behalf of the Rechargeable Battery Association, argued that customers could hurt themselves if they were allowed to replace their own cellphone batteries, and that manufacturers could be held liable for "mishandled" equipment.
"The cure for unsafe products is more repair. The cure for getting rid of faulty parts is more repair, not less," responded Gordon-Byrne.
Last year, Reason highlighted the case of Eric Lundgren, an e-waste entrepreneur, who was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for copying and selling CDs for restoring the Windows operating system on broken PCs—discs that Microsoft gives away for free.
"I've been telling these manufacturers: Right to Repair is happening," states Proctor. "It's time they got in front of it, instead of trying to stop it."