What is the Right to Repair?

Learn the ins and outs of a frequent topic of legislation

Broken smartphone
praetorianphoto/iStock

Do you have the right to repair the things you own? You might think the answer is a simple yes, but in reality, it's complicated. The issue isn't just whether you can repair your personal property, but whether you own it at all. Yes, that's right. Where it gets fuzzy is if the property in question runs on software, which these days, is prevalent. In addition to devices like smartphones, tablets, and computers, appliances such as your refrigerator, washer, and dryer, and even your automobile might run on software.

The software makes it more complicated and expensive to repair should it break down. So-called ​Right to Repair bills have been introduced in many states in an attempt to give consumers more rights when it comes to fixing their property, including being able to self-repair or to use a third party, but many have not passed.

So why does software throw a wrench into the right to repair? What it comes down to is software copyright. When you agree to terms of service, and the like, you're often agreeing that you're only licensing the software, even if you own the hardware outright. The copyright gives the software owner all sorts of leeway, including preventing you from accessing settings, understanding how it works, or modifying it in any way.

How it Can Affect You

There are many ways these policies can impact your life, and it goes beyond repair and into basic usability. While you may think you can use your product any way you want, that's not necessarily the case, or at least companies make it difficult to do so.

 Examples include manufacturers blocking apps from being downloaded to your smartphone or a car company requiring that you use only authorized repair center that costs twice as much as your local mechanic. There are even cases where a manufacturer can disable your device with no notice or recourse.

As it turns out, ownership has its limitations.

Nintendo Wii U

A Nintendo user found that when he tried to bypass a Wii U End User License Agreement (EULA) that he didn't agree with, he couldn't. The only option was to "agree" and when he backed out of it, the console became unusable. 

Sony PlayStation 3

In Sony's case, it sent out an update that blocked popular functions on its PlayStation 3 console, including the ability to run other operating systems. While users were able to avoid the update and continue to use the console, they had to suffer quite a few restrictions, which included blocking the ability to play PS3 games online, to play new PS3 games, and to watch new Blu-Ray videos.

Nest Home Automation

Another notable example is Nest, a Google-owned company that sells smart thermostats and home security products, among other things. In 2014, the company acquired a competitor, Revolv, which made a the Revolv Hub, a home automation device that users could set up to communicate with light switches, garage door openers, home alarms, motion sensors, and other smart home compatible devices. The $300 device included the promise of lifetime software updates.

Nest removed the device from the market after the merger, and then in 2016,  disabled the device entirely, presumably after all the original warranties ran out.

This action left consumers with a rather expensive brick. While they were free to replace the Revolv Hub with a relatively inexpensive competing product, it's still a problem.

First, there are suddenly hundreds or thousands of now-defunct devices that will likely be added to the landfill (some hopefully recycled), but also it sets a precedent where manufacturers can force consumers to upgrade or replace a device on a whim.

Smartphones

Other examples include the fact that manufacturers and carriers can block functions on your smartphone, such as tethering, or can throttle you if you use too much of your unlimited data plan.

Rooting your smartphone can get around these restrictions, but that's often in violation of your warranty.

Apple iPod

You may remember when iPods were the big thing (pre-iPhone) that music you purchased on iTunes wouldn't play on some non-Apple devices, while some music you bought elsewhere would not play on an iPod. Notably, Apple has fought against Right to Repair legislation. So have Microsoft and Sony.

Kindle and Nook 

Similarly, you may have downloaded an eBook from Amazon and then found yourself unable to read it on a Barnes & Noble Nook or other eBook Reader.

Digital Rights Management

These issues arise because of Digital Rights Management (DRM) comes in, which is meant to protect digital media from copyright infringement, such as the unauthorized distribution of a movie or book. It also prevents the copying of content by consumers. Of course, a producer doesn't want its content to be copied and distributed because that means lost profits. That sounds reasonable, but it also means that consumers are unable to copy video content from a DVD to a portable media player to watch it on the go, for example. Is that so wrong?

Thus there are severe limitations on how you can use products that you thought you owned. And it will continue to persist as more products include software of some kind. It's a sticky situation: should you be able to play the content you've purchased on a device you've purchased? Or are you beholden to the manufacturer and publisher's preferences? If it's your device, why can't you use it any way you want?

One-Sided Software Agreements

Well, it turns out that, when you download software or use a device that runs on software, you usually have to sign an end-user license agreement (EULA), which defines how consumers can use the software. What's troubling is that many of these so-called contracts are in digital form, presented as a click-through form. You've likely scrolled through these forms, which are often lengthy and filled with legalese.

It's easy just to say yes and move on, especially if you've already made a purchase. EULAs also aren't subject to negotiation, so it's a "take it or leave it" agreement. It shouldn't be one-sided.

What You Can Do About it

You can start by supporting Right to Repair legislation in your state or locality by contacting your representatives. Also worthwhile is contributing to organizations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation that fight for digital consumer rights every day.

When you're purchasing hardware or software:  

  • Avoid buying into products with onerous software agreements. Take the time to read EULAs carefully; a lot of the time you can save them as PDFs. Opt out if you find it too egregious—as long as that is an option; if not, consider canceling the transaction. 
  • Be wary of products that are powered by software and rely on Internet connections to work; this is how companies can "brick" products without your consent or involvement. 
  • Think about whether you need a bonus feature, such as a Wi-Fi connected refrigerator, or any device that will work just fine without a web connection. 
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