The Importance of Right to Repair

Not too long ago, I covered a topic of growing importance to me on Shop Talk: right to repair for devices. The impetus behind talking about it on Shop Talk was that Microsoft has committed to right to repair in some capacity in 2022. I don’t know what that will look like and hope it will be significant and meaningful, but we’ll find out the answer to that later.

In this post, I want to cover the basics of right to repair, why I think it’s so important, and provide a few resources if you want to learn more.

What Is Right to Repair?

Right to repair is a pretty simple idea: you should be able to operate and repair the things that you own. It sounds pretty simple and the immediate thought is, well, it’s not like the cops are going to show up and arrest me for opening my laptop and fixing a problem with it.

That’s not the problem, though. The problem is that manufacturers no longer provide schematics for appliances and devices as they did in prior decades. Without schematics, repair becomes a guessing game where a wrong guess can easily mean permanent device failure.

If you want to boil down right to repair to one simple idea, it is that manufacturers provide schematics, either to the general public or at least to repair shops—and not just the “authorized repair shops.” Ideally, those schematics are available online, in PDF format, and freely accessible to anybody with a need for them. Beyond that, ensuring that parts are available for repairs is also critical.

Why Is Right to Repair Important?

But hey, who really repairs their own stuff? I mean, why not just take it to a shop? Hidden in that question is an important piece of information: even the shops rarely have schematics, especially not the independent shops. At best, you take your device to an authorized dealer and they can perform a repair. The median case is that the authorized dealer simply acts as a central point for postage, shipping your device to some factory where a person working for the manufacturer (or on behalf of the manufacturer) does the repairs and ships it back. This can add weeks to the overall wait time and also adds the risk of accidental destruction during shipping to and fro.

Furthermore, there is a major incentive alignment problem when the manufacturer owns the “authorized repair” business. Suppose I take a Macbook to the Apple store and need a $100 repair (replacing a capacitor or chip for a few bucks and an hour of labor, say). Apple could take the $100 or they can try to get me to buy a new $1500 laptop. They make more money when they sell me a new device, and so they radically over-charge on repair costs, making that $100 repair become a $500 or $800 repair and now it’s just not worth the cost of repair anymore.

They can get away with this because in order to be an Apple authorized repair shop, you follow Apple’s rules with Apple’s pricing, buying your parts from them, and not getting any of the things that would make your repair shop viable—like, say, schematics which leak from the factories in China, allowing independent repair shops to do what they do. If you’re an authorized repair shop, you can’t actually do most of the repairs.

Ultimately, schematics provide us more choices. If you can’t read an electronic diagram (and I’m pretty terrible at it myself), that’s fine—you don’t need to. But for the people who can read them, or for people who want to learn about the process, having the PDFs or printed schematics give the information necessary for you to fix common issues. In many cases, hardware failures happen because some capacitor gets damaged. A single capacitor is quite a bit cheaper than a new device, so there can be significant financial incentives for owners of devices to be able to repair them.

But what if you don’t want to repair it? What if you just want to go buy a new one? That’s absolutely fine—right to repair is about offering the choice to fix it if you want, hire somebody else to fix it if you want, or buy a new one if you want. As of today, with a lot of computer hardware problems, the default answer is “Just buy a new one.” That’s because we don’t have the necessary information to open up those additional choices, and most manufacturers are quite happy to leave it that way.

In the automotive world, we have companies like Haynes and Chilton which have provided repair guides for decades. I remember going to the library with my dad, where he’d find the repair guide for our car, figure out what he needed to do to fix a problem, and fixed it. Replacing a manual transmission or adjusting a timing belt can look menacing to someone who has no information, but having the schematics available allows qualified people to write repair guides which can disseminate information—and also act as a sanity check for the types of things you can easily do at home versus what you probably should take in to a shop.

For more complex devices, I’d include diagnostic/error codes with schematics. Any “external” processes engineers and technicians at a manufacturer use to diagnose and repair devices should be fair game and clearly laid out. That doesn’t mean manufacturers need to release source code (though I’m certainly not opposed to that idea), but anything logged should have enough information to explain, without looking at source code, what is happening, why it is happening, and (if there’s a known answer) what the process is to fix it.

Even beyond schematics, diagnostic codes, and the like, right to repair also embraces the idea that parts and servicing should not be beholden to the original manufacturer. For example, if you purchase a printer from a manufacturer like Canon, there’s no inherent reason why the ink cartridges or toner drums need to come from Canon as well. Provide the schematics for the printer and companies can compete on ink, including used/refilled cartridges (a matter which made it to the Supreme Court).

Can This Benefit Manufacturers?

Possibly! The first-order effect is that people are likely to buy fewer iterations of a product from a given manufacturer over time, so that seems like a loss. As we saw above in the CBC article I linked, Apple’s strategy seems to be overpricing repair costs to the point where people make the rational decision simply to buy a new product rather than spend just as much money to repair their existing one. Apple’s good at extracting the maximum amount of money from their customers, so I have no doubt their strategy is profit-maximizing for them. And for companies producing short-term, low-quality goods intended to break down after a couple of years, their entire business strategy is built around repeated purchases, and allowing customers repair their own devices and make them last longer gets in the way of that.

But second-order effects exist as well. I’m writing this post from my Framework laptop. The primary reason I went with Framework for this laptop is their stance on right to repair, and I’m willing to pay some amount of premium for this support, knowing that I stand a better chance of getting a component fixed later on than with a laptop whose manufacturer opposes right to repair. When the norm is anti-right to repair, that opens up a niche for pro-right to repair manufacturers.

Also, for durable goods, providing schematics and detailed repair instructions can allow the manufacturer to charge a premium for the product, especially if we have a pretty good idea of the long-run cost of the “planned obsolescence” strategy to customers. Suppose we create a hypothetical with two television manufacturers. One sells low-end televisions for $500 and they tend to last 2-3 years before failing. There are no schematics, no repair guides, and the manufacturer does everything they can to prevent repair. They want you to junk the broken TV and buy another one from them.

By contrast, suppose another company sells a $2000 TV but its mean time to failure is more like 8-10 years, and with a few hundred dollars in repairs stretched out over its lifetime, can last 20+ years. Let’s call that $2500 for 20 years of service, versus $3500-5000 with the lower-end brand over the same timespan. These are extreme examples, but you can see the possibility for product differentiation. It would take a fairly savvy marketing campaign, but product longevity has a way of selling itself.

Third-order effects start to move beyond my ability to prognosticate. Using the example of printers and ink cartridges, the printer itself typically serves as a loss leader: the manufacturer sells the printer for less than cost, expecting to make up for it with overpriced ink cartridges. Providing these schematics would make it easier for others to develop alternative cartridges, which would have two effects: prices for printers would go up because they would no longer be loss leaders, and prices for ink cartridges would go down. On the plus side, printer manufacturers would be less likely to pull stunts like preventing you from scanning if one of your ink cartridges is dry.

So You Want To Learn More…

In case you want to learn more about right to repair, check out the Repair Preservation Group, which has a 501(c)(3) for non-profit information sharing and a 501(c)(4) for advocacy. Louis Rossmann runs that organization and also has a popular YouTube channel where he talks about right to repair, fixes Macbook logic boards, and shares a few more hobbies.

The Repair Association is a 501(c)(6) trade association intended to lobby in favor of right to repair legislation. They have a brief history of right to repair legislation in the United States.

The biggest thing you can do to help is to talk to legislators at all levels, but particularly your state and local representatives. Automotive right to repair legislation has passed a couple of times, but more general right to repair legislation has not, in part because the benefits of right to repair are dispersed among the wider population, while the costs are borne by a smaller group. Typically, when we see that pattern, the smaller group tends to dominate legislatively because they have more incentive to lobby—John Deere has a lot more skin in the game than a single farmer, leading to the perverse results we have today. But as popularity of a position grows, legislature eventually follows, and there have been some positive outcomes on the right to repair side of the ledger over the past several years, to the point that I’m optimistic we’ll see more.