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The Right To Repair.

Posted on 2nd October 2017

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The issues described in this article from The Economist are probably all too familiar to many readers. Things are being deliberately made more and more difficult to repair: either simply constructed to be hard to fix, or only repairable with specialist equipment.

This problem is becoming endemic in very many industries, affecting smart-phones, tractors, cars, computers, furniture, bathroom fittings office equipment, etc. It is not only in items which contain software, but also purely mechanical things. One notable exception is goods from IKEA, probably because their flat-pack furniture comes with tools for assembly, and they want to minimise the number of tools that they give away with the furniture, but other manufacturers are now frequently building their products with non-standard screws and bolts (just look at the vast array of different types of screw-heads here).

The other aspect of this problem is built-in obsolescence. Machines and even passive items like bathroom fittings and equipment are now designed to wear out, often annoyingly quickly. This might be good for the manufacturers, but it is not good for our bank balances, and also not for the environment: we are forced to throw things away after two or three years because they are worn out or broken, and cannot be repaired. As an example, the cistern on my toilet needs to be regularly serviced because of lime-scale build-up, otherwise it just runs all the time, but each time I remove the cover, another piece of plastic falls off, and as a result it will soon need to be replaced, adding another piece of plastic to be disposed of. Manufacturers, unfortunately, are getting much better at designed-in obsolescence: if they design something to have a service-life of 3 years, it is very unlikely to last for 4 years.

The Economist's story describes a movement to establish a legal right to be able to repair products, which would certainly help. Another trend is a library of 3D printer patterns, which you can download to print replacement parts at home (if you have a 3D printer at home, which most of us do not), but manufacturers have refused to supply their designs for use in creating these parts libraries, and have even sued third parties (under patent and copyright laws) who have created such libraries independently.

I rather like the French laws on this matter, where planned obsolescence (designing a product for a limited lifespan) is already an offence punishable by up to €300,000 ($354,000) or up to 5% of the maker’s average annual sales in France, whichever is higher, and manufacturers have to tell customers how long they can expect the goods to last. At last, at least in France, it is possible for consumers to make informed decisions on the total lifetime cost of ownership; this urgently needs to be added to the legislation in other countries.

Given the environmental imperative (so many of the items in our homes and workplaces are plastic, or contain toxic metals), we should not be forced to throw things away so often, with no option to repair. I might not always choose to repair something, but I would like to have the choice.

The other issue that The Economist raises is that of ownership. This is mainly a problem when a piece of equipment has a software component, but also applies to music and movies. If you have a smart-phone, as most of you do, you own the hardware, but not the software that makes it work, in the same way as Mr. Guy Mills and his John Deere tractor (he is allowed to repair the hardware, if he has the right tools, but not the right to repair or modify the software, which controls everything from the engine to the armrests, because he doesn't own it). If you own a Tesla self-driving car, you also don't own the software, and terms of use apply: you are not allowed to use the vehicle to make money with ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft (apparently because the firm plans soon to launch its own such service, called “Tesla Network”). If you use Microsoft's Office-360. you are probably already aware that you didn't buy it: you leased it.

I have been resisting the use of non-owned products as much as I can, for a while now, but they are so ubiquitous that it is impossible to avoid them completely: Smart-phones are the obvious example; I need to have one, for work, and there really are no options for owning the software components. I really think we need some enhancement of our legal right in this area.