What seems like a small change approved by Massachusetts voters to expand access to motor vehicle data could have massive implications for the repair industry nationwide, and for a variety of product manufacturers. 

The ballot initiative, approved by 75 percent of the state's voters, requires car makers to wirelessly share information they collect about a vehicle's status. That information, known as telematics, can help auto mechanics anticipate and fix problems. The effort is an expansion of a 2012 law that requires automakers to provide the same data to independent repair shops as they do dealerships.

As everything from cars to refrigerators to phones become increasingly computerized, manufacturers have sought to restrict repairs because of safety and intellectual property infringement concerns. As a result, consumers are effectively locked into dealers or original manufacturers for repairs, which some complain is inconvenient and costly because of the lack of competition.

On the surface, the scope of the Massachusetts law is narrow: A technical change for a single industry in a single state. Yet it signals growing interest in so-called right-to-repair laws, which have been introduced in 20 state legislatures as a means for easing some of the restrictions on the broader repair industry. Specifically, the effort asks manufacturers of all stripes to provide equal access to repair manuals, tools, service parts, and software.

It also poses challenges for manufacturers of a range of products, according to Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director of the Repair Association, a group focused on right-to-repair legislation. "What it does is reinforces the public awareness that manufacturers are screwing everyone over," she says.

Repair Monopolies.

Gordon-Byrne points to research her organization has done showing that 90 percent of products are "repair monopolized"--that is, the repair options are so limited that often the owner's only recourse is to head to the manufacturer or authorized dealer. Doing so may be more expensive than independent servicers would be--although often the independents aren't even allowed access to parts to begin with. "If the manufacturer won't sell parts, it's game over any number of ways," Gordon-Byrne says.

Repair monopolization, say consumer advocates, starts with a product's terms and conditions, which can limit the owner's ability to repair or resell an item if it defies a product's "permitted use." The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which passed in 1998 and protects software makers from piracy, has provided the legal justification to limit independent repair service providers. In 2018, the U.S. Copyright Office largely unraveled the DMCA's section 1201--which bars users from unlawfully "circumvent[ing] technological measures used to prevent unauthorized access to copyrighted works," thereby confirming consumers' ability to unlock and repair some of their devices. Still, the Copyright Office reviews its rules governing repairs allowed under the law every three years.

Kyle Wiens of iFixit, a global repair community that sells aftermarket, salvaged parts and tools, describes the problem as foundational: "The intellectual property system we have--copyrights, trademarks, and patents--is designed to incentivize creative work. But there wasn't a whole lot of thought given to how you can enable a circular economy in the process," he says. Companies may be more interested in selling a new device versus fixing an existing one, he says. And they're perfectly within their right to do so. "This is why we need right-to-repair laws," he says. "The legal deck is stacked in favor of the manufacturer."

To suss this out, the Federal Trade Commission in the summer of 2019 hosted a workshop, dubbed "Nixing the Fix," aimed at examining manufacturers' ability to restrict third-party repairs. This past summer, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a spending bill that included an order that the FTC offer a report on anti-competitive practices in the repair market. An agency spokesperson says the report is still forthcoming.

Oversight & Optics.

The report is likely to show just how complex these issues really are. Manufacturers have a legitimate interest in ensuring that their products function as intended. They may have good reasons, for example, to prevent someone from turning a smartphone into a spying device, or from getting injured after making an ill-advised "repair" to a riding lawnmower. Even if the manufacturers are not on the hook for liability, the optics aren't good.

Companies such as Apple say that it believes in a customer's right to repair their own products; it just wants oversight. "When a repair is needed, a customer should have confidence the repair is done right," Jeff Williams, Apple's chief operating officer, said in a statement last August. "We believe the safest and most reliable repair is one handled by a trained technician using genuine parts that have been properly engineered and rigorously tested."

Apple tells Inc.: "We are committed to giving our customers more options and locations for safe and reliable repairs." The company's new independent repair provider program allows any business, regardless of size, the same access to tools, parts, and manuals as those currently available to Apple Authorized Service Providers--the company's preferred network of in-warranty service providers. There's a training requirement attached to the offering, but Apple says the training is free

Even so, many other manufacturers aren't interested in extending permissions to repair services. On its website, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, an industry group, calls "overly broad" right-to-repair legislation "unnecessary" and risks the safety, durability, and environmental sustainability of equipment. "To encourage innovation and regulatory compliance, manufacturers and dealers will not allow access to back-end source code which can be used to reset safety features, reprogram control units, or change settings that affect emissions and safety compliance."

Whether lawmakers--or voters, in the case of Massachusetts--see it that way is still anyone's guess. What is certain is that the effect of these restrictions can often put consumers in a bind, Gordon-Byrne says. Not only might they face higher prices, as the work gets reserved for a rarified few, but attempting to fix a device without those permissions can often render it irreparable. Service providers can be contractually obligated to reject repairs of devices that have previously been worked on by uncertified providers. All of this contributes to more waste in the environment, as consumers will be quicker to get rid of products if they can't get them fixed easily and affordably. 

Shifting Gears.

With so many pitfalls, Gordon-Byrne is confident that the Massachusetts measure will fuel interest among state legislatures to pass right-to-repair laws. "If it worked for cars, there's a good reason to expect that it will work for other product classes," she says.

There's also uptake on a federal level. Congress is now debating a medical right-to-repair law, which would temporarily waive some patents and copyrights held by medical equipment manufacturers during the Covid-19 pandemic to allow technicians, who may not be authorized, to repair equipment without violating the law. Since the pandemic began, medical professionals have described unfortunate delays in which broken equipment such as ventilators have been idled, as manufacturers struggle to meet demand.   

The Democratic Party has also listed a farmer's right to repair agricultural equipment as a plank in its platform. There's no current bill representing these interests on the books. But that could change after President-Elect Joe Biden takes office in January.