Have you ever wanted to fix something, but the special tools, parts, or information needed to do so simply aren’t available? As a service and repair technician, have you ever been told that if you open up a device to fix it, you’ll void the warranty?
All of that seems to be changing at a state level, and parts of it have already changed at a federal level too.
In a big win for consumers, tinkerers, and repair people, the Federal Trade Commission is aggressively enforcing the Right to Repair provisions of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act.
In their latest action this April, the FTC testified before a California State Senate committee considering a bill that would create a “right to repair” for several types of consumer products including requiring manufacturers of certain products to make spare parts, diagnostic tools, and repair instructions available to owners of products and to independent repair shops.
The California bill, SB 244, would require manufacturers of warrantied electronic or appliance products to make available to product owners, service and repair facilities, and service dealers, the means to effect the diagnosis, maintenance, or repair of the product.
Also this April, Colorado cleared the way, with bipartisan support, for the country’s first agricultural right to repair bill to be signed into law. The bill will allow farmers to fix their own tractors and other agricultural equipment. If signed by the governor, the agriculture-focused
SIW445-CCH-WinCamp_FullPgAd_8p375x10p875_r02.pdf bill should provide more independent repair options for farmers, giving them access to the parts, diagnostics, and documentation they need to make repairs. The bill comes after a lawsuit filed against John Deere, a company that puts software locks on equipment that only authorized dealers can disable, preventing farmers or an independent repair shop from diagnosing and fixing the machines.
And in March, more than 28 state
1 1/25/23 1:50 PM attorneys general wrote a letter to congress urging federal right to repair legislation.
“As our states’ chief consumer protection and antitrust enforcers, we write to respectfully request that you redouble your efforts in the 118th Congress to pass expansive Rightto- Repair legislation targeted at automobiles, agricultural equipment, and digital electronic equipment to protect our consumers and farmers
Sell your old gadgets to Gizmogo.com Photo credit: Gizmogo, KTLA News across the nation,” the attorneys general wrote.
Moreover, federal legislation concerning the right to repair has already been introduced.
One such bill, the Fair Repair Act, introduced in June 2021, would require original equipment manufacturers to make available to independent repair providers and device owners the documentation, parts, and tools necessary to repair their products (excluding vehicles and medical devices).
According to the state attorneys general, a 2021 Consumer Reports survey shows that around 75% of all consumers believe that the manufacturers should be required to make available to independent repair professionals and consumers the basic diagnostic information, tools, and replacement parts needed to make repairs of products generally. But despite widespread public support, none of these bills moved forward in the House of Representatives.
That is because for many years, the right to repair consumer goods has not been a foregone conclusion.
And many manufacturers make it impossible — whether inadvertently or intentionally — for consumers or independent repair technicians to fix their products. The knowledge and tools to repair and refurbish products are frequently not made available to consumers and repair people.
Beyond restricting access to parts, manufacturers block repair in all kinds of other ways. Sometimes they glue in batteries with industrialstrength adhesives. Sometimes they use proprietary screwheads. Sometimes they use software to pair parts to a device’s serial number or motherboard, either throwing up errors for replacement parts or blocking new parts entirely.
According to iFixit.com, an online forum of fixers and repair seekers, when manufacturers don’t make parts and tools available, they create repair monopolies and hurt small businesses. The forum conducted a survey and found that 96% of independent repair shops have had to turn customers away because of repair restrictions.
Members of iFixit.com say that when manufacturers don’t make available or public the means, tools, and information to fix their own products, it raises the question of who actually owns the product.
“Who owns our vehicles?” iFixit wrote to the FTC during a 2019 public comment period. “The answer used to be obvious. But with the advancement of telematics, the safety, usage, location, system health, error codes and other data from a car are now tied to cloud services controlled by the manufacturer. So the answer has changed. Manufacturers can shut off remote services at any point and render hardware inoperable, and modifications to software to restore functionality can be illegal under DMCA Section 1201.”
DMCA stands for Digital Millennium Copywrite Act, and many manufacturers have used it to criminalize the dissemination of information that repair people need to fix things.
For example, in 2015, when a member of iFixit posted a how-to fix a MacBook Pro Logic Board featuring a pirated circuit schematic, the forum received a DMCA takedown notice from Apple.
“The current state of affairs is biased against product owners, turning regular people — like students, researchers, and small repair business owners — into criminals,” iFixit writes.
The tide has already turned when it comes to warranty language, although some manufacturers don’t seem to be aware of it yet.
Indeed, some comp a n ies continue to affix “warranty void if removed” stickers on their products, a practice that is actually illegal according to the FTC.
In a 2018 FTC press release, the commission warned companies that such language is prohibited by the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, a law that governs consumer product warranties.
Companies use different language, but here are examples of questionable provisions according to the FTC:
• The use of [company name] parts is required to keep your . . . manufacturer’s warranties and any extended warranties intact.
• This warranty shall not apply if this product . . . is used with products not sold or licensed by [company name].
• This warranty does not apply if this product . . . has had the warranty seal on the [product] altered, defaced, or removed.
In 2022, the FTC approved final orders against several companies, including Harley Davidson Motor Company Group, grill maker Weber-Stephen Products, and the manufacturer of Westinghouse outdoor power equipment, MWE Investments, for illegally restricting customers’ right to repair their purchased products.
The companies were told that they would be prohibited from telling consumers that their warranties will be void if they use third-party services or parts, or that they should only use branded parts or authorized service providers. They were also ordered to add specific language to their warranties such as “Taking your product to be serviced by a repair shop that is not affiliated with or an authorized dealer of [Company] will not void this warranty” and/or “using third-party parts will not void this warranty.”
A recent FTC policy statement (Policy Statement of the Federal Trade Commission on Repair Restrictions Imposed by Manufacturers and Sellers — ftc.gov) has identified 8 examples of manufacturer/dealer conduct that has the potential for “restricting competition for repair services … without reasonable justification.” Those practices include:
• Imposing physical restrictions on repairs, such as adhesives or proprietary screws that prevent product disassembly.
• Limiting access to parts, manuals, diagnostic software, and tools to only manufacturers’ authorized repair networks.
• Designing products to make independent repairs less safe.
• Limiting the availability of telematics information, which is information that a vehicle collects about its operation and transmits to a central location.
• Asserting intellectual property rights in an “unlawful, overbroad manner.”
• Disparaging aftermarket or thirdparty parts and independent repair.
• Using “unjustified” software locks, digital rights management, and technical protection measures.
• Imposing “restrictive” end user license agreements.
In addition, numerous class actions have been brought in the last three years on these issues.
Manufacturers with repair and service policies should assess:
• Their practices against the current enforcement environment, including the business justifications for any repair restrictions.
• How they communicate those restrictions to customers.
• Customers’ understanding of a product’s lifecycle costs.
• How (if at all) the repair restriction relates to the product’s warranty coverage.