As all our things become ‘smart,’ companies are increasingly saying that fixing them is illegal.
Last summer, when the Copyright Office asked if anyone wanted to defend the right for video game console jailbreakers to mod or repair their systems, no one had a formal legal argument prepared. A new association representing repairmen and women across all industries was just formed to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.
Repair groups from across the industry announced that they have formed The Repair Coalition, a lobbying and advocacy group that will focus on reforming the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to preserve the "right to repair" anything from cell phones and computers to tractors, watches, refrigerators, and cars. It will also focus on passing state-level legislation that will require manufacturers to sell repair parts to independent repair shops and to consumers and will prevent them from artificially locking down their products to would-be repairers.
"It's long overdue," Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the group, told me. "We have all these little businesses trying to repair stuff and running into what they thought were different problems in different industries. We realized it was all just the same problem."
That problem—that manufacturers of everything are trying to control the secondary repair market—has two main sources, Gordon-Byrne said. First, manufacturers use federal copyright law to say that they control the software inside of gadgets and that only they or licensed repair shops should be allowed to work on it. Second, manufacturers won't sell replacement parts or guides to the masses, and often use esoteric parts in order to specifically lock down the devices.
These problems have been well known in the smartphone, computer, and consumer electronics for years, and it's why groups like iFixit and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been able to mount successful challenges to the DMCA in recent years. Increasingly, however, these problems are spilling over into just about every other industry.
"They're affecting literally everything in the world that is complex enough to have digital components"
The Repair Coalition—which is also calling itself repair.org—includes members from the EFF, iFixit, PC Rebuilders & Recyclers, The Fixers Collective, Public Knowledge, and a series of other smaller industry groups.
"All consumer appliances, from refrigerators to microwaves, very much have repair monopolies from manufacturers, even if you are able to buy parts," Gordon-Byrne said. Customers who have dared to repair their refrigerator will get to a certain part of a repair and find that components for thermostats or valve controls are locked down via passwords that manufacturers only give to licensed repair shops that they themselves control. The problem is only going to get worse as the Internet of Things takes hold.
"We've had these kinds of issues for a long time, but now with the electronics-fication of everything, they're affecting literally everything in the world that is complex enough to have digital components," Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, told me.
And so The Repair Coalition will primarily work at a federal level to repeal Section 1201 of the DMCA, which states that it's illegal to "circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under [the DMCA]." Thus far, activists have tried to gain "exemptions" to this section—it's why you're allowed to repair a John Deere tractor or a smartphone that has software in it. But the exemption process is grueling and has to be done every three years.
"I don't like exempting equipment because it's all conceptually the same problem," Gordon-Byrne said.
On a state level, the group will push for laws such as one being proposed in New York that would require manufacturers to provide repair manuals and sell parts to anyone—not just licensed repair people—for their products. The thought is that, if enough states pass similar legislation, it will become burdensome for manufacturers to continue along with the status quo. At some point, it will become easier to simply allow people to fix the things they own.
"We want to become an umbrella organization for repair," Gordon-Byrne said. "We want to help the small repair technicians that aren't getting help from anywhere else."