You own it, you should be able to fix it. So much equipment on sale today has either been designed to be impossible to maintain, unnecessarily too complex to maintain, maintainable only with specialist tooling only available to authorised service agents, or with no repair parts availability. It’s a hot-button issue in an age when sustainability is a global concern, so legislators and regulators worldwide now finally have it in their sights after years of inaction and it’s become a buzzword. But what exactly is the right to repair, and what do we want it to be?

Is It Designed For Repair?

A Nestle Dolce Gusto machine
For some reason, pod coffee makers are especially resistant to repair. Andy1982, CC BY 3.0

The first question to consider is this: does it matter whether or not you have the right to repair something, if it’s designed specifically with lack of repairability in mind? Consider a typical domestic pod coffeemaker such as a Tassimo or similar: despite being physically quite a simple device, it is designed to be especially complex to dismantle and reassemble. You just can’t get into it when something goes wrong.

Should it be the preserve of regulators to require design for easy repair? We think so. There are other forces working on the designers of home appliances; design-for-manufacture considerations and exterior appearance concerns directly affect the firm’s bottom line, while the end users’ repair experience is often at the bottom of the list, even though the benefit at a national level is obvious. That’s what laws are for.

Are Other Laws Being Misused To Curtail Repair?

John Deere tractors are notroious for their dodgy DMCA
John Deere tractors are notorious for their dodgy DMCA. Bahnfrend (CC BY-SA 4.0).

In many cases there’s no such thing as a lack of a right to repair. Oxford Hackspace’s coffee machine may have been difficult to repair when it broke, but I had every legal right to do so.

Turn to the poster child/villain of many right-to-repair stories: John Deere. Because the machine itself is designed to be worked on, it seems obvious that a farmer should be able to wrench on their tractor.

Here, Deere turned to the DMCA, a piece of 1990s legislation born of music industry panic over piracy, that sought to prohibit the circumvention of copy protection mechanisms. Similar to the methods used to neuter refilled printer ink cartridges, Deere tied a software component that had to be linked to and authorised by a Deere computer. While the farmer could repair their tractor, it would no longer work…

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