The Right to Repair

Erin Kernohan-Berning

2/20/20244 min read

black circuit board
black circuit board

“They don’t make them like they used to.”

“It costs more to repair than to buy a whole new one.”

“I can get it fixed, but I have to drive to [insert urban centre 2 hours away] to get that done.”

If you own any piece of technology, whether it is a smartphone, computer, appliance, vehicle, or just about anything that switches on and does a thing, you have probably uttered at least one of the above phrases.

The right to repair is a concept that includes several consumer rights including:

  • That consumers have the right to repair or have someone repair the products that they have purchased.

  • That consumers be able to choose a repairer based on affordability, quality, and convenience.

  • That the tools, information, and parts be available so that repairs can be made.

The right to repair movement developed in response to corporations creating roadblocks to consumers being able to prolong the life of the products they purchased. But why would corporations want to do this? Well, because they want to sell more products.

In the early 20th century, the automobile industry ran into a problem: lots of people owned cars and, those cars being still in good condition, didn’t need new ones. In the mid-1920s, General Motors began to introduce yearly changes to car models – a little more speed, the sexiest new colour, a flashy bit of trim – to entice consumers to buy a new vehicle even if they didn’t necessarily need to. This practice is credited as the birth of “planned obsolescence”, artificially shortening the usable lifespan of a product to force consumers to buy new.

Since then, there has been an ongoing battle for the right to repair as industry has adopted practices to stymie that right. Examples include:

  • Smartphone manufacturers using glue to secure batteries into devices, inhibiting simple battery replacements.

  • Pushing consumers to costly authorized repair networks, a practice that originated with the Ford Motor Company, to disadvantage independent repair shops.

  • Manufacturers using non-standard parts to prevent consumers from purchasing more affordable and widely available third-party options.

  • Pairing parts and software in such a way that repairs cannot be carried out by independent repairers (a practice adopted with gusto by John Deere, and ultimately adopted by many other manufacturers).

In 2012, Canada enshrined digital lock rules in the Copyright Act. The original intent of this was to protect creators’ rights to works such as music, videogames, and other digital media from piracy. A major criticism of these rules at the time was that this addition to the Copyright Act made it illegal to break a digital lock even if the resulting act was otherwise legal and not an infringement on a creator’s copyright. A consequence to these anti-circumvention laws was exactly what critics predicted: digital locks began to be used outside of their intended purpose. Manufacturers began to use digital locks to restrict repairs and the use of third-party parts. John Deere, Apple, and Epson are just a few companies that have engaged in these practices.

Two pieces of legislation making their way through Canada’s parliamentary system will hopefully correct this mistake. Bill C-244 and Bill C-294 are both amendments to the Copyright Act to allow for those digital locks to be bypassed for the purpose of repair or interoperability provided actual copyright isn’t being violated. Both bills received unanimous support in the House of Commons and are now before the Senate for review. These pieces of legislation are an important first step to secure the right to repair for Canadians.

For people living in rural areas and low-income earners, fostering the right to repair in Canada could mean not having to drive long distances, being able to choose a lower cost option, or being able to repair something yourself. The right to repair also means that fewer products go to landfill prematurely, lessening our impact on the environment. Encouraging independent repairers also creates small business opportunities and increases competition.

The right to repair is a worldwide movement, and different countries are taking varying approaches to how they support that right. As an example, the European Union has focused on creating design requirements for companies to follow including working to ban the practice of gluing batteries into smartphones and requiring the use of standard cable connections (such as USB-C) across devices. Because the companies that manufacture the technology we use are also global, all of these approaches are needed to ensure that the right to repair is upheld.

Learn more

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