Regulating Consumers’ Rights to Repair Products: The Debate Between Convenience and Intellectual Property Rights
November 10, 2019
Back in 2012, Massachusetts passed the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act. This piece of legislation ordered car manufacturers to publicly release information on both repair parts and processes for their automobiles. This meant, rather than having to bring in cars to the automaker, or “original equipment manufacturer” (OEM) for any necessary repairs, consumers would also be able to seek the services of an independent repair shop, which would introduce competition into the once monopolized field of car repairs. This change not only effectively lowered the costs associated with car repairs, but also made obtaining repairs more efficient. Increased access to pertinent car-specific information meant that more repair shops would have the necessary tools to perform repairs, making it easier for car owners to find a mechanic to work on their vehicle.
The Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act is generally considered to have kicked off the right to repair movement at a grander scale. The ideas expressed in the act relate to numerous industries which create consumer products, such as tech (i.e. smart phones, laptops, etc.), agriculture (i.e. farming supplies and tools), and even medical (i.e. medical devices used in hospitals). However, despite the tangible benefits this type of legislation can bring to consumers, they have amassed a significant amount of (relatively successful) opposition from the retailers themselves.
One of these opponents is Apple, who, for example, spent upwards of $18,000 opposing a New York bill on the issue. Apple, which requires its products’ users to bring their phones, computers, tablets, and other gadgets into Apple’s Genius Bar for any repairs, has lobbied against the right to repair. Companies like Apple argue that the right to repair legislation would harm their business by forcing them to reveal confidential proprietary knowledge. The right to repair also raises concerns over intellectual property, as releasing repair information could give members of the public access to a product’s composition, and subsequently build a duplicate version which could be sold to other consumers (and at prices lower than the original manufacturer’s). Nevertheless, right to repair activists claim that policies such as Apple’s planned obsolescence, which is when consumer products are designed with the intention of becoming obsolete after a limited period of time, results in a consistent stream of revenue for the company or manufacturer. Figure 1, which was released in 2017 following the immediate release of the iPhone 7, shows the market share for different iPhone models. Something to note is that nearly 70% of the market owns an iPhone no more than around 2 years old.
Manufacturers also raise safety concerns surrounding the right to repair. Medical devices, many of which include high-tech systems or computers, can be immensely expensive to repair, which places a significant financial burden on health-care providers. These providers argue that the process of sending a device to the manufacturer for repairs can be detrimental to patients in emergency cases. If these providers were permitted to fix these devices in-house, it would both save money and time that would otherwise be wasted. However, as previously mentioned, there are legitimate safety considerations that must be acknowledged. If an in-house engineer does not have the proper experience or expertise to repair particular kinds of devices, these products could malfunction and harm patients. Sometimes, increased safety measures come at a cost.
One industry that has lobbied for right to repair legislation is the agricultural field. Many crucial farming products come with strict terms and conditions surrounding their repair. This could either mean that fixing one’s own product voids the product warranty, or that the company will simply refuse to release any instructional manuals on how to properly repair the equipment. Due to the rise in technology features present in different farming equipment, a minor computer glitch within a tractor could cause the machine to stop functioning properly. This is particularly cumbersome for farmers, as they are generally based in rural areas remote from even the closest manufacturer technician. There is increased pressure being placed on farming equipment-manufacturing giants, such as John Deere, to give farmers the option to either fix their own items, or take them in to local repair shops. Politicians such as U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren have actually added language pertaining to “right to repair” within their agribusiness legislation proposals.
In conclusion, the right to repair debate is a contentious one. Some constituencies argue that manufacturers are infringing on their consumer rights by disallowing them to fix their own items. By voiding customer warranties for any outside repairs, or withholding repair information, manufactures seemingly encroach on the rights of its consumers. Consumer rights advocates posit that manufacturers may be purposely engaging in planned obsolescence, thus making repair information public could undermine their operations. Moreover, manufacturers can oftentimes heavily profit off repairing products. However, manufacturers claim the repair policies they’ve imposed are necessary, citing privacy, intellectual property rights, and safety concerns (particularly in the medical field). This issue is not black-or-white, though increasing popularity behind the right to repair movement shows it’s one Americans should keep on their radar, as 20 states have considered implementing legislation on the matter.
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