By Erik Martin, special to The Content Wrangler

“You bought it, you own it,” is a motto consumers like to think applies to any electronic device or software they purchase. But the truth is that manufacturers are in the business of selling as many new products as possible, which means it’s not in their financial interest to make it easy for you to repair, tinker with, resell or make a backup copy of their merchandise. If that sounds unfair to you, you’re not alone. The numbers of disgruntled consumers and advocates for fairer repair/reuse rights are growing, and the media is paying more attention.

Consider, for example, the heat Apple has received in the wake of its recent Error 53 scandal. Initially, Apple defended the error, which can brick the device and ultimately render it useless, as a security measure caused by third-party repairs of the device. But after consumers and repair experts expressed outrage, Apple reversed its position, admitted the error was a mistake, and released a patch that “unbricked” affected phones.

It may be hard to believe, but there was a time—especially during and immediately after the Great Depression, when resources were scarce—when repair and reuse principles were firmly ingrained in the American consumer’s psyche. Today, however, we live in a consumption culture dominated by cheaper, single-use goods that are quickly chucked away, destined for a landfill – often because they quickly break and/or we abandon a product that is thought obsolete once a newer version arrives on the market. And companies have made it increasingly harder for their customers to “get under the hood” by using harder-to-find/proprietary parts, withholding service manuals and important repair information, and often forcing consumers to get their products fixed via in-house services or authorized repair centers, which has put a lot of third-party repairers out of work.

Image: Repairing a smartphone
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The Right To Repair

Thankfully, concerned organizations have come to the rescue, demanding fairer practices, legislation, and open dissemination of information in an effort to give consumers the right to repair or reuse virtually anything they have purchased. Most recently, an advocacy group called The Repair Association was formed, a nonprofit trade association that aims to represent the more than 3 million repair and reuse professionals in the United States as well as do-it-yourselfers. Repair Association members include prominent organizations like iFixit, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, The Service Industry Association, The Electronics TakeBack Coalition, The Fixers’ Collective, and Public Knowledge.

“Consumers want devices to be repairable for a variety of reasons, like keeping the old refrigerator running. A $200 repair is a heck of a lot easier on the budget than a $1,500 replacement purchase,” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, Executive Director of The Repair Association. “Plus, a lot of consumers like their independence but don’t like our ‘throw-away’ society. To stop this trend, there has to be pressure.”

Gordon-Byrne cites the successful efforts of the auto repair industry against dealer-only repairs in 2012. While they got nowhere in the U.S. Congress, the auto repair industry put an initiative on the ballot in Massachusetts, eliminating the influence of lobbyists. The bill passed with 86% voter support.

The Repair Association hopes to have similar success with the technology repair industry. The group is concentrating on reforming the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in an effort to preserve consumers’ right to repair and is focusing on passing state level legislation that, for example, will obligate manufacturers to sell components to independent repair providers and consumers.

“Many repair providers have launched their own fights, but they’ve lacked the resources to attack the problem comprehensively,” Gordon-Byrne adds. “Our vision for The Repair Association is to be the umbrella that connects everyone in the repair market and the aftermarket for technology products so that we can influence trends.”

Gordon-Byrne is heartened by recent legislative accomplishments that bode well for the “fixers movement,” including the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act passed in 2014, and, in 2015, key exemptions won in the Copyright Office, making it legal for researchers, owners, and consumers to break technological locks over copyrighted content – from movies to computer software. The Repair Association is currently working on legislation in states like New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Nebraska. Gordon-Byrne encourages concerned Americans to contact their legislators in support of fair repair laws in their states and to join and contribute to The Repair Association.

Image: Smartphones in need of repair
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Kay-Kay Clapp, community manager for iFixit, says manufacturers have been waging a quiet war against tinkerers for years.

“They’ve used countless legal threats to keep consumers from fixing their tractors, repairing their Apple products, and even modifying software on their calculators,” says Clapp. “Repair is a big business for manufacturers, and most businesses are financially motivated to keep it in-house.”

Many manufacturers will employ ultra-conservative policies intended to reject warranty claims, according to Vincent Lai, program manager with The Fixers Collective.

“Most popular is the claim of physical abuse. Dents and cracks on products, even when they don’t affect the performance of the product, will provide manufacturers with sufficient grounds to deny warranty work,” Lai says.

Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, an advocacy organization promoting sustainability in the electronics sector, says consumers face several challenges related to repairing modern electronics.

“These include difficulties taking them apart without destroying the product, soldered or glued in parts – making them difficult or impossible to remove – lack of online repair manuals, and proprietary parts or tools that you can only buy from the manufacture at a very expensive cost,” says Kyle.

Fortunately, helpful online resources are available. In addition to providing special repair guides for many products on its website, iFixit has made it easier for consumers to determine which products are harder or simpler to repair by providing repairability scores for many reviewed devices. A device with a perfect score of 10 means it is relatively inexpensive to repair because it is easy to disassemble and has a service manual available.

Clapp says several criteria make products more repairable.

Image: Opening a broken iPhone
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“Opening a device should be straightforward. It should not be sealed with proprietary screws or sticky industrial adhesive,” says Clapp. “Parts that are most likely to fail should be the easiest to access. The most repairable devices make sure commonly failing components can be individually replaced. Lastly, parts should be clearly labeled, and repair instructions should be freely available to anyone who wants to use them.”

Clapp notes that the iFixit website makes it easy for consumers to support manufacturers that make repairable devices, including two companies she says particularly stand out for repair friendliness: Dell and Fairphone.

Kyle recommends considering the product’s repairability before you purchase it and looking closer at environmentally friendly claims.

“Some companies at least make their repair manuals available online publicly. Dell and HP have been very good about this over the years,” says Kyle. “And, despite any claims that a product is ‘green,’ if a product is designed to thwart repair and reuse, it’s not really helping achieve any sustainability goals.”

Ultimately, repair requires three basic components: the right parts, tools, and some knowledge of the device you’re working on. Unfortunately, all three of these things are often unavailable to consumers, which is why fixer movement groups are so important: They work hard to fill in those gaps.

“But there are thousands upon thousands of new devices released every single year,” Clapp says, “so we’re constantly playing a game of catch-up.”

Additional Resources

Fairphone: The First Truly Smart Smartphone