Editor's note: The paragraph about John Deere has been changed since the column was originally posted.
Nobody likes to clean a cat box, so CatGenie created a self-cleaning litter box. Unfortunately, the CatGenie’s SmartCartridge contains a chip that refuses to operate if the cartridge has been used more than a factory-determined number of times. Even though the purchaser can take apart and refill the SmartCartridge, it still won’t work. The owner is out of luck and must purchase a new SmartCartridge.
Similar software also limits the use of cellphones, cameras, electric tools, cars and other products. It’s digital rights management gone mad, applied to products far beyond the original targets of protection, such as the content on CDs and DVDs. Under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), equipment owners are often prohibited from making repairs to devices with copyrighted software, forced instead to take their equipment to an authorized dealer. Bypassing built-in security voids most warranties and violates the DMCA, which could result in penalties of up to $500,000 in fines and five years in prison.
Both consumers and corporations should be concerned by the repair restrictions placed on digitally controlled products. Consumers, particularly those in the growing maker movement, like to modify equipment and use it in novel ways. But manufacturers have no incentive to accommodate that. In the name of protecting the integrity of their brands, they limit repair options to authorized dealers. That drives independent repair companies out of business, resulting in higher repair costs. For example, Apple charges $70 to install a new iPhone 4 battery although a new battery with DIY instructions is available for $20 on the Web.
To improve the situation, consumers and businesses need to do the following:
- Support proposed “right to repair” laws. The fight to repair cell phones, tablets, gaming consoles and other digital equipment is ongoing. The Digital Right to Repair Coalition is working on legislation in Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York that would give consumers and organizations the right to repair devices that they own. In addition, it would ensure that service information, replacement parts and security updates are available to owners and independent repair organizations.
Equipment manufacturers will resist the proposed laws. John Deere has told the Copyright Office that when someone buys one of its tractors, they get “an implied license for the lift of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.” Writing about this for Wired, Kyle Wiens said such a position could destroy the concept of ownership — an assessment that Deere pushed back against. Wiens followed up at ifixit.org, where he reprinted a letter that Deere sent to its dealers after the Wired article appeared. In it, Deere assured its dealers, “There is no question that John Deere customers own the equipment that they purchase,” and stated that “Similar to a car or a computer, ownership of equipment does not include the right to copy, modify or distribute software that is embedded in that equpment.” Wien’s comment: “Farmers sort of own their tractors — just not the part that actually makes the tractor work.”
This is not the first such fight. As automobiles incorporated more electronics, manufacturers attempted to limit the ability of enthusiasts to work on their own cars — a stance that rankled the enthusiasts, independent garages and chains like Jiffy Lube considerably. That coalition eventually prevailed. In 2014, automakers agreed to standardize on Massachusetts law and share the same repair information with independent shops that they make available to dealers.
- Buy products that were designed to be maintained. In 2010, a team of students from Stanford and Aalto University in Finland designed the Bloom, an easy-to-maintain, green laptop. It can be disassembled in 10 steps without tools, using only graphical instructions. By contrast, in a test by the students, it took 45 minutes for a team of three engineers, using three tools, to disassemble a MacBook.
Although the Bloom has never been built commercially, its easy-disassembly design provides three benefits. First, repair costs are lowered, since it is easy to diagnose problems. Second, the Bloom’s lifetime is longer than the normal laptop, because individual components can be upgraded easily. Finally, the laptop was designed to be recycled. The all-aluminum case needs no intermediate processing. Internal components are color-coded as plastic, metal and circuitry for easy separation and recycling.
- Push manufacturers to make equipment manuals available. Dell, Lenovo, Fairphone and other companies make their repair manuals available online. By contrast, Apple, Samsung, Toshiba and some other suppliers allow only authorized technicians to acquire repair manuals, tools and replacement parts. These manufacturers make it as difficult as possible for customers or independent repair organizations to repair their own equipment. Nikon, Toshiba and other companies have even threatened lawsuits against websites that post products manuals.
Over the last few years, a number of organizations dedicated to helping owners repair their own equipment have emerged. These organizations share product manuals, arrange information forums, and host events to share information about digital products. Examples include:
- www.iFixit.com has repair information, tools, and parts for phones, tablets, computers, cameras and other devices.
- www.iCracked.com is an independent repair network for Apple and Samsung phones and tablets.
- www.Repaircafe.org shares information about events where people with technical experience network and repair each other’s devices.
- www.Fixya.com operates a question-and-answer billboard for a wide variety of products.
The rugged individual who solves problems is part of the American ethos. Owners of malfunctioning products should not be forced to rely on lengthy manufacturer repairs, at prices so inflated that many consumers will simply buy a replacement. DIY repairs, and those done by independently owned businesses, help lengthen the life of electronically controlled products and ultimately reduce electronic waste. It is time to update the DMCA and allow product owners to select the repair mode that best meets their needs.