Why electrical engineers should support the right to repair

Writing in IEEE Spectrum, iFixit's superhero founder Kyle Wiens and Repair.org exective director Gay Gordon-Byrne bring the case for the right to repair (previously) to the engineering community, describing the economic, technical, and environmental benefits of permitting a domestic industry of local, expert technologists to help their neighbors get more out of their gadgets.

The benefits of this are undeniable: scrapping a ton of ewaste creates 15 jobs, repairing it creates 200 jobs (and spares our descendants from having to deal with our toxic landfill). But electronics companies deploy technology, law and economic pressure to suppress independent service, in order to monopolize the repair market, mark up replacement parts, and force the public to "upgrade" perfectly good gadgets that they're not allowed to fix.

With 12 states introducing right to repair laws in 2017, there's real momentum behind this movement. But it has a big hurdle to overcome: section 1201 of the DMCA makes it a felony to bypass DRM, so companies from GM to Apple are using DRM to limit who can fix their tools, on penalty of imprisonment.

EFF is suing the US government to overturn this law, and the right to repair movement is a big part of making the case for taming the DMCA in the court of public opinion and in state legislatures.

All computerized equipment comes with embedded software—code that tells the machine what to do and how its components should function together. Without that code, our coffee doesn't brew, our cars don't shift gears, and our sewing machines can't stitch.

When you buy such a machine, the hardware becomes yours. But if you ask manufacturers, they'll say that the software inside still belongs to them. It's copyrighted, and most manufacturers don't want you to touch it, even if the thing is broken. And thanks to a controversial U.S. law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) [PDF], manufacturers are allowed to put digital locks on the code to stop people from meddling with (or even looking at) it. The European Union's Copyright Directive has similar provisions. Originally, these sorts of laws were designed to prevent pirates from copying movies and music. But, increasingly, manufacturers use them to maintain control of the products they sell to you.

Lexmark famously used the DMCA to sue Static Control Components, which was making chips that allowed other companies to refill Lexmark toner cartridges and sell them again. Recently, HP went so far as remotely disabling unlicensed cartridges installed in its printers. Even John Deere deploys digital locks to make sure that only its own technicians can fix anything software-related on its agricultural machines.

When asked why it was standing in the way of farmers who want to fix their own tractors, the company replied that farmers didn't really own their tractors. According to John Deere [PDF], farmers have only "an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle," and farmers (or their mechanics) aren't allowed to fiddle with the software to effect a repair.

Why We Must Fight for the Right to Repair Our Electronics

[Kyle Wiens and Gay Gordon-Byrne/IEEE Spectrum]