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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

Countering The Throwaway Mentality With The Right To Repair – Part 1

February 18th, 2016 by Jeff Rowe

You don’t truly own something that you can’t get into to modify or repair.
–Gathered from many wise sages over the years (especially the past 10)

I’ve got an iPhone 4S that’s a few years old and I still love it. I like the size, the feel, and I’ve purchased a number of accessories designed specifically for it. I’ve also rescued it from dropping it in water, and know how to replace the battery, as well as the glass back and the front screen. These self-repairs are officially no-no’s according to Apple, and aren’t easy, but knowing how to repair the phone I still really like and keeping it 100% functional, I intend to hold onto it until something happens that I can’t resolve, such as a surface mount component failure.

I’m probably not like a lot of consumers, so I don’t necessarily constantly need the latest and greatest. I’d rather maintain and repair what I have as long as I can. After all, I view my phone, cameras, and computers as tools that should be made to last, and not precious possessions on the one hand, or mere throwaway items on the other.

My journey to fixing my own stuff started a number of years ago with an excellent resource call iFixit – a free online series of repair manual for tinkering with thousands of products. The goal of iFixit was to teach virtually anyone how to fix the stuff they own — ranging from laptops to snowboards to toys to cell phones. In other words, iFixit is part of a global network of “fixers” trying to make the stuff they own last as long as possible.

Makers put things together; fixers take them apart and rebuild them. Tinkerers are a little bit of both, and are much more than just consumers — they are participants in the things we make, own, and fix.

This might sound great, but over the years, I have found that this participation — tinkering with products made by others — puts both makers and fixers at odds with manufacturers.

According to Kyle Wiens founder of iFixit, “By revealing (and reveling in) the secret insides of machines, tinkerers transgress the boundaries of what manufacturers think we should be able to do with our stuff. We alter the code they wrote, we rebuild the hardware they designed, and we find ways of fixing our old stuff instead of buying their new stuff.

For the past 20 years, manufacturers have been waging a quiet war against tinkerers like us. They’re using encryption-powered DRM, vague hand-waving claims of proprietary knowledge, DMCA takedown notices, and legal threats to keep people from fixing their tractors, from repairing their Apple products, and even from modifying the software on their calculators. Keurig is even adding a chip to their coffee pods to prevent home coffee brewers from ‘reloading’ their capsules.

Even the car industry — sacred ground for tinkerers since the rise of the hot rod — has succumbed to the same locked-door policies. These days, cars are made up of as much code as they are nuts and bolts. Tinkering under the hood requires access to service information and schematic systems — information that carmakers don’t like to share.”

Right to repair bill; why you should care and what you need to do.

This whole movement harkens back to the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act, sometimes also referred to as Right to Repair, a name for several related proposed bills in the United States Congress and several state legislatures that are intended to require automobile manufacturers to provide the same information to independent repair shops as they do for dealer shops.

Versions of the bill have generally been supported by independent repair and after-market associations, and generally opposed by auto manufacturers and dealerships. First considered at the federal level in 2001, but no provisions were adopted until the Massachusetts legislature enacted a Right to Repair bill in 2012. This law was passed in advance of a binding ballot initiative referendum that appeared on Massachusetts’s statewide ballot also in November. The measure passed with 86% voter support.

Early in 2014, the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, Coalition for Auto Repair Equality, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and the Association for Global Automakers signed a Memorandum of Understanding that is based on the Massachusetts law and which would commit the vehicle manufacturers to meet the requirements of the Massachusetts law in all 50 states.

For better or worse, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments required all vehicles built after 1994 to include on-board computer systems to monitor vehicle emissions. The bill also required automakers to provide independent repairers the same emissions service information as provided to franchised new car dealers. California further passed legislation requiring that all emissions related service information and tools be made available to independent shops. Unlike the Clean Air Act, the California bill also required the car companies to maintain web sites which contained all of their service information and which was accessible on a subscription basis to repair shops and car owners.

As automotive technology advanced, computers came to control the vital systems of every vehicle, including brakes, ignition keys, air bags, steering mechanisms and more. Repairing motor vehicles became a high-tech operation, with computer diagnostic tools replacing a mechanic’s observation and experience. These developments eventually made manufacturers the “gatekeepers” of advanced information necessary to repair or supply parts to motor vehicles.

The Pledge
We have the Right to Repair Everything We Own
It’s high time we demand the right to open, tinker with, and repair everything we own.

The Pledge:

I will learn to fix things I didn’t think I could.
I will buy things that are built to last.
I will fight for our right to repair.
And, I will share what I learn along the way.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has also gotten into the act of the Right To Repair movement.

More and more, your devices come embedded with software.  From phones to cars to refrigerators to farm equipment, software is helping your stuff work better and smarter, with awesome new features.

Awesome, that is, until it breaks and you want to fix it yourself (or take it to a local repair shop you trust). Or you think of a way to make it work better that requires tinkering with the software (or some third party does).  Or you want to give it to a friend or re-sell it. Then, you have a problem. Why? Copyright.

Software is subject to copyright, and than means that, as a rule, you might own your device but you only license the software in it.  And that license (often called an “End User License Agreement”) is likely to come with any number of restrictions on your ability to tinker with your stuff.  Typical clauses forbid reverse-engineering (i.e., figuring out how the software works so you can adapt it), transfer (i.e., giving it to a friend), and even using unauthorized repair sources at all.

Further complication: the software may come with digital locks (aka Digital Rights Management [DRM] or Technical Protection Measures [TPMs]) supposedly designed to prevent unauthorized copying.  And breaking those locks, even to do something simple and otherwise legal like tinkering with or fixing your own devices, means breaking the law, thanks to Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

And then there’s manual lockdown, which happens when manufacturers refuse to publish crucial repair information (including the manuals themselves, but also things like diagnostic codes for cars)—and then threaten to sue anyone else who tries to do so with a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

The end result: users are disempowered, trained to go hat in hand to the Apple store just to change a battery (rather than doing it themselves). Medical clinics must waste scarce resources on expensive repair contracts rather than patient care.  Independent repair shops are driven out of business.  And the electronic waste piles up, as users discard their devices rather then fixing them or donating them for re-use.

If you can’t fix it, you don’t own it. From challenging restrictive end user agreements to supporting the fair use of repair manuals and diagnostic codes, EFF is fighting to give owners control over their own devices.

This is Part 1 with Part 2 to follow next week, and only the beginning for those of us who want some control over the devices we own and use, and not the vice versa.

Feel free to weigh in on how you feel about the Right To Repair. Contact me at or 719.221-1867.

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One Response to “Countering The Throwaway Mentality With The Right To Repair – Part 1”

  1. Dennis Nagy says:

    Excellent blog piece, Jeff. Thanks for bringing this subject to our (increased) attention.

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