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Regulating Consumers’ Rights to Repair Products: The Debate Between Convenience and Intellectual Property Rights

November 10, 2019
Convenience has become a top priority of many consumers in the 21st century. The onset of new systems that allow people to obtain their necessities (and desires) quicker and easier than ever has individuals increasingly calculating their time as an opportunity cost. This phenomenon extends to the field of consumer products, and has given rise to the “right to repair” movement. This movement refers to ongoing debates in the tech policy/regulation community around whether a consumer should possess the inherent and official right to repair the products they purchase without fear of voiding the product’s warranty. There are opposing sides and perspectives on this matter, both of which will be explored throughout this piece.

Back in 2012, Massachusetts passed the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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).[4] 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.[5] 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.

Image: iPhone X Breaks into Market Share. Source: Localytics.Image: iPhone X Breaks into Market Share. Source: Localytics.

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] Politicians such as U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren have actually added language pertaining to “right to repair” within their agribusiness legislation proposals.[9]

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.

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

References

  [1]https://malegislature.gov/Bills/187/H4362

  [2]https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/02/you-gotta-fight-for-your-right-to-repair-your-car/283791/

  [3]https://onlineapps.jcope.ny.gov/LobbyWatch/

  [4]http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3317623

  [5]https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8093797

  [6]https://uspirg.org/blogs/blog/usp/right-repair-simple-way-cut-health-care%C2%A0costs

  [7]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/06/nebraska-farmers-right-to-repair-john-deere-apple

  [8]https://www.chicagobusiness.com/manufacturing/why-deere-and-cat-dont-want-customers-do-it-themselves

  [9]https://medium.com/@teamwarren/leveling-the-playing-field-for-americas-family-farmers-823d1994f067

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RESOURCE SPOTLIGHT:

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  • <h3>USDA Nutrition Assistance Data</h3><p><img width="180" height="124" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image485 lw_align_right" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1233" data-max-h="850"/>Data and research regarding the following <strong>USDA Nutrition Assistance</strong> programs are available through this site:</p><ul><li>Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) </li><li>Food Distribution Programs </li><li>School Meals </li><li>Women, Infants and Children </li></ul><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics" target="_blank">http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
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  • <h3>Congressional Budget Office</h3><p><img width="180" height="180" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/180/380_cbo-logo.rev.1406822035.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image380 lw_align_right" data-max-w="180" data-max-h="180"/>Since its founding in 1974, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has produced independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.</p><p> The agency is strictly nonpartisan and conducts objective, impartial analysis, which is evident in each of the dozens of reports and hundreds of cost estimates that its economists and policy analysts produce each year. CBO does not make policy recommendations, and each report and cost estimate discloses the agency’s assumptions and methodologies. <strong>CBO provides budgetary and economic information in a variety of ways and at various points in the legislative process.</strong> Products include baseline budget projections and economic forecasts, analysis of the President’s budget, cost estimates, analysis of federal mandates, working papers, and more.</p><p> Quick link to Products page: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products</a></p><p> Quick link to Topics: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/topics" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/topics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
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  • <h3>HUD State of the Cities Data Systems</h3><p><strong><img width="200" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image482 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 3x" data-max-w="612" data-max-h="613"/>The SOCDS provides data for individual Metropolitan Areas, Central Cities, and Suburbs.</strong> It is a portal for non-national data made available through a number of outside institutions (e.g. Census, BLS, FBI and others).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html" target="_blank">http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED®)</h3><p><strong><img width="180" height="79" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/79/481_fred-logo.rev.1407788243.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image481 lw_align_right" data-max-w="222" data-max-h="97"/>An online database consisting of more than 72,000 economic data time series from 54 national, international, public, and private sources.</strong> FRED®, created and maintained by Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, goes far beyond simply providing data: It combines data with a powerful mix of tools that help the user understand, interact with, display, and disseminate the data.</p><p> Quick link to data page: <a href="http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series" target="_blank">http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Center for Education Statistics</h3><p><strong><img width="400" height="80" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/400/height/80/479_nces.rev.1407787656.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image479 lw_align_right" data-max-w="400" data-max-h="80"/>The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations.</strong> NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. NCES has an extensive Statistical Standards Program that consults and advises on methodological and statistical aspects involved in the design, collection, and analysis of data collections in the Center. To learn more about the NCES, <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/about/" target="_blank">click here</a>.</p><p> Quick link to NCES Data Tools: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4</a></p><p> Quick link to Quick Tables and Figures: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCES Fast Facts (Note: The primary purpose of the Fast Facts website is to provide users with concise information on a range of educational issues, from early childhood to adult learning.): <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/#</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Internal Revenue Service: Tax Statistics</h3><p><img width="155" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image486 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg 2x" data-max-w="463" data-max-h="596"/>Find statistics on business tax, individual tax, charitable and exempt organizations, IRS operations and budget, and income (SOI), as well as statistics by form, products, publications, papers, and other IRS data.</p><p> Quick link to <strong>Tax Statistics, where you will find a wide range of tables, articles, and data</strong> that describe and measure elements of the U.S. tax system: <a href="http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2" target="_blank">http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The Penn World Table</h3><p> The Penn World Table provides purchasing power parity and national income accounts converted to international prices for 189 countries/territories for some or all of the years 1950-2010.</p><p><a href="https://pwt.sas.upenn.edu/php_site/pwt71/pwt71_form.php" target="_blank">Quick link.</a> </p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>