The issue arises because many manufacturers’ license agreements and warranties require all repairs (or certain types of repairs) to be performed by the manufacturer or an authorized provider. Proponents of right to repair legislation counter that if someone owns a product, they should be able to do what they want with it, including repair it on their own terms, buy independent replacement parts and hire third-party services.
Since the late 1990s, right to repair has been a hotly contested issue, especially in the electronics, automotive and farm equipment industries. The issue gained a higher profile in 2017 and 2018 when right to repair legislation was filed in several U.S. states and major tech vendors, including Apple, AT&T and Microsoft and their trade associations lobbied against it, claiming safety, security and copyright concerns.
Right to repair in the electronics industry dates back to the dawn of the computer era in the mid-1950s, according to the Repair Association (formerly the Digital Right to Repair Coalition). A pivotal event was the 1956 consent decree in a U.S. federal court that found IBM in contempt of anti-monopoly laws and required the computer vendor to allow a market in used equipment and independent repairs. When the consent decree was lifted in 1996, independent repair of computers began a steady decline, the association claims.
Right to repair concerns soon spread to other types of products that have computers or firmware inside of them, such as smartphones, appliances and cars. The issue took on greater urgency when the auto industry began trying to enforce similar restrictions on repairs.
In 2013, Massachusetts passed the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act, becoming the only state to have such a law. In the following two years, several automobile and truck associations agreed to a memorandum of understanding committing their industries to follow the Massachusetts model in all 50 states.
By mid-2018, 18 states had electronics right to repair (or fair repair) legislation under consideration. The proposed laws would require manufacturers to make spare parts, repair tools, manuals and firmware available to the general public and independent service providers.
Importance of right to repair
Advocates for the right to repair argue that independent repair providers — often small “mom and pop” shops — are vital to local economies. They also say that if a manufacturer has what amounts to a monopoly on repair service, prices rise and quality goes down.
Right to repair is said to have environmental and social benefits. Being able to repair electronic products postpones the day when their recyclable components must be reclaimed and the remaining electronic waste buried in a landfill. It could also alleviate the digital divide by making cheaper refurbished goods available in higher quantities to people who can’t afford new products.
Right to repair movement
The right to repair movement are groups of individuals and organizations which advocate for the right for consumers to be able to fix their electronics and other items they have bought and own. The goal of the movement is to empower both individuals and the repair industry.
The right to repair movement’s main argument is that individuals should have the right to repair their electronics and other items through fixing it themselves or hiring a third party. The case relies on the notion that if an individual has bought and owns an item, they should have the right to repair those items. To perform repairs safely and effectively, however, individuals would need service information, specific tools, spare parts and repair software.
Organizations such as Consumer Reports and i try to promote standards which will allow individuals the ability to have access to the tools and information needed to repair their own products. iFixit, for example, states individuals should have the right to:
- Fix the products they own, either through themselves or through a third party.
- The manuals or other diagnostic tools vendors may use
- The ability to unlock jailbreak the software on their devices
The right to repair movement also actively tries to push through fair repair bills and registrations. The idea of planned obsolesce is another example of what the movement attempts to fight against, striving to make electronics last longer.
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