Repairs used to be straightforward. If your car, television, or refrigerator broke down, you had three options: Scrap it and buy a new one; pay a premium for the dealer to fix it; or save some dough by finding a third-party mechanic to patch it up. But because of a quirk in corporate copyright law, that third option is quickly disappearing.
"How come there are lots of TVs, but there are no TV repair shops anymore? The answer is, they can't get the parts, the tools, or the firmware to fix the damn TV," says Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, a "repair rights" organization. "If it says it's a smart appliance, I say run away. Run away as fast as you can."
Gordon-Byrne's advice is based on the broad protections of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. Originally written to protect artists and programmers, the DMCA criminalized attempts to circumvent technological barriers associated with digital products. While the DMCA didn't make it illegal to buy a DVD overseas, it made hacks allowing it to be played back at home punishable by up to five years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
These protections made some sense in an era when people were coping with the new ability to mass-copy any CD, DVD, or computer program. But what the DMCA didn't predict was digital technology becoming standard in every kind of product.
Now, even though you may know how to fix a refrigerator, that knowledge is irrelevant when trying to fix a smart fridge locked by hardware. You can ask the company to let you in, but they're going to say no, because why would they say yes? You can risk the half-million-dollar fine and prison time (hacks are available online), but that's not a great gamble for a repair business. Repair companies simply don’t service smart machines, meaning that, soon enough, they won't service anything at all.
"Repair is something so basic in our lives. It's like eating."
It's easy to see how the end of third-party repairers benefits corporations. They get to claim another profit pool by forcing customers back into their stores. "Corporations would just rather sell you more equipment. That's the business model. It's tension that's always existed," Gordon-Byrne says.
But it's also easy to see how this can go wrong for the consumer.
"Now, [companies] can stop fixing things, and you're cooked," Gordon-Byrne says. "Under current law, anytime a manufacturer decides they don't want to support something, the people that bought it are stuck."
The DMCA protections can also allow corporations to get away with illegal activities. In 2015, Volkswagen was caught programming its cars to conceal the amount of pollution they were emitting. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, the concealment could have been discovered years earlier if researchers with independent watchdog organizations had been able to examine the vehicle computer. Because of the DMCA, they could not.
If any legal battle is one over language, this one is over whether consumers are "owners" or "licensees" after the point of sale. It's a fight best exemplified by the one between The Repair Association and tractor manufacturer John Deere.
In 2014, after decades of court cases solidifying that consumers don't own the software in products they buy (you own your iPhone, not the iOS), The Repair Association filed for a blanket exemption for those accessing firmware in John Deere tractors. A year later, the United States Copyright Office agreed to the exemption, but with a one-year delay. On October 28th of 2016—the day the ruling took effect—John Deere required consumers to sign a new end user license agreement, recognizing them as licensees not owners.
"Farmers are rapidly losing the option of repairing just about anything with a tech part—from an irrigation sensor to a packaging production line, to a water pump and HVAC equipment," Gordon-Byrne says. "There are plenty of technicians more than capable of fixing anything, but they're very constrained in terms of what they can do legally."
But Gordon-Byrne is hopeful. Because frustrated consumers have voiced their concerns with their congressional representatives, there are currently "Right to Repair" bills circulating in 12 states. If passed, they'd require manufacturers to sell repair parts, release manuals, and technical information that consumers could bring to third-party repairers.
These protections would allow consumers to tinker the way they did before. "Repair is something so basic in our lives. It's like eating," she says. "Something breaks, you want to fix it."