Why are companies trying to make it illegal to repair our electronic devices?

Jul 14, 2017, 06:15 AM

Traditionally, when a car breaks down, the solution has been to fix it. Repair manuals, knowledgeable mechanics, and auto parts stores make car repairs common, quick, and relatively inexpensive. Even with modern computer-equipped vehicles, regular people have plenty they can do: change oil, change tires, and many more advanced upgrades.

But when a computer or smartphone breaks, it’s hard to get it fixed, and much more common to throw the broken device away. Even small electronic devices can add up to massive amounts of electronic waste—between 20 million and 50 million tonnes (22-55 million tons) of electronic devices every year, worldwide. Some of this waste is recycled, but most—including components involving lead and mercury—goes into landfills.

Bigger equipment can be just as difficult to repair. Today’s farmers often can’t fix the computers running their tractors, because manufacturers claim that farmers don’t actually own them. Companies argue that specialized software running tractors and other machines is protected by copyright and patent laws, and allowing farmers access to it would harm the companies’ intellectual property rights.

Users’ right to repair—or to pay others to fix—objects they own is in jeopardy. However, in our surveys and examinations of product life cycles, my colleagues and I are finding that supporting people who want to repair and reuse their broken devices can yield benefits—including profits—for electronics manufacturers.

At least eight states—Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Tennessee—are considering laws that would require companies to let customers fix their broken electronics. The proposals typically make manufacturers sell parts, publish repair manuals, and make available diagnostic tools, such as scanning devices that identify sources of malfunctions. In an encouraging move, the US Copyright Office suggested in June that similar rules should apply nationwide. And the US Supreme Court recently ruled that companies’ patent rights don’t prevent people from reselling their electronics privately.

Seen one way, these regulations put manufacturing companies in a tough spot. Manufacturers can earn a lot of money from selling authorized parts and service. Yet to remain competitive, they must constantly innovate and develop new products. To keep costs down, they can’t keep making and stocking parts for old and outdated devices forever. This leads to what’s called “planned obsolescence,” the principle that a company designs its items to have relatively short useful lives, which will end roughly around the time a new version of the product comes out.

However, our research suggests that companies can take a different approach—designing and building products that can be refurbished and repaired for reuse—while building customer loyalty and brand awareness. By analyzing surveys of hobbyists and the repair industry, we’ve also found that there are barriers, such as a lack of repair manuals and spare parts, that impede the growth of the repair industry that can be improved upon.

Even as machines and devices have become less mechanical and more electronic, we have found that customers still expect to be able to repair and continue using electronic products they purchase. When manufacturers support that expectation, by offering repair manuals, spare parts, and other guidance on how to fix their products, they build customer loyalty.

Specifically, we found that customers are more likely to buy additional products from that manufacturer, and are more likely to recommendthat manufacturer’s product to friends. The math here is simple: More customers using a company’s products, whether brand-new or still kicking after many years, equals more money for the business.

Our research also shows that the failure of most electronic devices is due to simple accidents such as dropping a device or spilling water on it. The most common problem is a broken screen. There a...