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hiawatha bray | Tech Lab

You gotta fight for the right to repair your digital devices

A John Deere combine demonstrates corn harvesting at the Husker Harvest Days agricultural fair in Grand Island, Neb., Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Nati Harnik/AP

Under current copyright law, manufacturers own the software that runs our devices.

Lydia Brasch and her husband Lee are raising corn and soybeans in Bancroft, Neb., and a ruckus in Silicon Valley. That’s because Lydia, who is also a software consultant and a Nebraska state senator, wants a law that would let her repair her tractor, and nearly anything else with a microchip in it.

“People should be able to maintain, they should be able to diagnose, and they should be able to repair,” said Brasch. And they shouldn’t need the manufacturer’s permission to do it.

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Under current copyright law, manufacturers own the software that runs our devices, and may use that power in unwelcome ways, like building tractors that a farmer can’t fix, or smartphones that must be repaired by authorized dealers. Businesses can bar customers from tinkering with the software; those who do so anyway could be hauled into court for copyright violations.

Lawmakers like Brasche have had enough. They’re driving a nationwide movement to enact “digital right-to-repair” laws aimed at making technology repairs simpler and cheaper.

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Brasch remembers when the family’s $300,000 Case IH combine broke down and it took a day to bring in an authorized technician with the needed diagnostic equipment. She decided that farmers should be able to buy the diagnostic kit themselves.

But the Nebraskan is not just thinking about tractors. Brasch’s bill allows do-it-yourself repairs of practically everything electronic — appliances, home audio systems, smartphones, nearly any digital device. Manufacturers would have to sell consumers and independent repair shops the necessary parts, software, and diagnostic gear.

Right-to-repair laws are a nuisance for consumer electronics companies, which make extra dough by fixing broken devices themselves. Also, by keeping repair prices high, they can goad a consumer into buying new gadgets.

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That’s why lobbyists for Apple Inc. and from CompTIA, an electronics trade association, met with Brasch about her bill. To her surprise, they praised it, sort of. “They said it’s probably the best they’ve seen,” she said. The lobbyists were fine with regulating the tractor business. But they asked for a special exemption for smartphones.

That’s not going to happen. “People here. . . we try to do the right thing,” said Brasch. “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”

Neither Apple nor CompTIA responded to requests for comment. But in a letter to Lydia Brasch, CompTIA and other tech industry groups said the right-to-repair law “threatens consumer safety and security” by forcing companies to reveal technical information that would make their products easier for criminals to hack. Indeed, Brasch said the Apple official predicted that the law would turn Nebraska into “a mecca for hackers.”

But Apple itself is partly to blame for the surge in digital right-to-repair legislation. Last year, the company outraged many customers who’d replaced damaged fingerprint sensor buttons on the iPhone 6. If the work was done by an unauthorized repair shop, the phone would become totally unusable the next time Apple upgraded its software. Apple abandoned this policy, but the damage was done.

At least eight states are pushing digital right-to-repair legislation, including Massachusetts, which showed the way back in 2012. That’s when Massachusetts voters approved a referendum forcing automakers to share the equipment and digital codes needed to fix their cars, so anyone could make repairs. When other states lined up to follow our lead, the world’s automakers adopted the Massachusetts standard nationwide. After all, once you meet the standard in one state, it costs only a little more to comply in all 50. So I’d guess that if just one state backs digital right-to-repair, it’s game over.

There are already plenty of unauthorized repair shops that will replace your smartphone’s screen or battery. Many of them rely on iFixit, a company that dismantles and reverse-engineers electronic devices to provide the shops with service manuals the manufacturers won’t provide. But so far, iFixit has produced manuals for only about 7,400 devices. That’s not nearly enough; companies introduced over 20,000 new products at last month’s CES electronics trade show alone. Besides, independent repair shops and hobbyists want spare parts and specialized tools direct from the manufacturer. They’re willing to pay; the companies should be willing to sell.

In the end, the right-to-repair dispute isn’t really about technology; it’s about dumb software copyright laws that let businesses retain control of your devices even after you’ve paid for them. The combine on Brasch’s farm and the smartphone in my pocket have one thing in common — they’re ours, and we should be able to get them fixed by whomever, wherever.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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