Why North Carolinians deserve to have the “right to repair”

October 10, 2022 12:00 pm

North Carolina farmers would have more to celebrate on this year’s International Repair Day (which is scheduled for Saturday, October 15) if big business interests hadn’t succeeded, last July, in quashing a new proposed law contained in the original version of North Carolina’s 2022 Farm Act.

The legislation would have added a new Article 9 to the state’s consumer protection statutes — a right-to-repair provision — that would have required farm equipment manufacturers, such as John Deere and Caterpillar, to make manuals, schematics, software, parts, and tools needed for repair available to farmers and independent repair shops. Not for free, of course, but at reasonable prices.

Many farmers prefer to do repairs themselves or rely on local shops because it saves time and money. Manufacturers and dealers want to monopolize repair because it bolsters profits. Right-to-repair legislation could cut into those profits.

When it looked like the new provision might pass as part of the annual farm bill, manufacturers and dealers mustered a last-minute lobbying effort to kill the provision. The right-to-repair issue has now been relegated to a study commission. A previous right-to-repair bill covering electronic digital devices met a similar fate in 2017.

The issue is one that affects us all, not only farmers. As the devices on which we depend have become more computerized, they have become harder to repair. Today, special tools and diagnostic software are often needed—tools and software that manufacturers can withhold as a way to maintain a monopoly on repair.

By requiring manufacturers to provide the resources necessary for repair, right-to-repair laws, which have either passed or are under consideration in more than 25 states, aim to give consumers more economical choices: to repair devices and machinery themselves or turn to independent professional repair people.

Advocates of right to repair argue that if you buy a product—be it phone, car, tractor, toaster, or whatever—you should be able to fix it if it breaks. The benefits accrue not only to the buyer who saves money on repair. We all benefit from keeping products in use longer and thereby reducing the stream of waste going to landfills.

We can also benefit from reducing the environmental costs of making more new stuff when there is plenty of life left in what we already have. Many people wonder what they can do to fight climate change and environmental degradation. Repair is one answer.

Be it phone, car, tractor, toaster—you should be able to fix it if it breaks.

Right-to-repair advocates also argue that these laws can boost local economies by creating jobs for independent repair professionals. Instead of our money going to corporate giants, our money stays in the community, helping to support people who practice repair as a skilled trade.

Repair can bolster communities in other ways. When ordinary people can acquire the tools, parts, and other resources needed for repair, they can learn to do repairs and help neighbors with their repair needs. This is what and the Repair Café movement are all about: people helping each other fix stuff, usually for free, and making friends in the process. Right-to-repair laws aid this kind of community-building.

Corporate opponents of right-to-repair laws say that repairs should be done only by factory-trained technicians. Consumers and independent repair people, according to manufacturers, don’t have the know-how to do the job right. But of course this isn’t because consumers or independent repair people aren’t smart enough. It’s because the know-how is being hoarded.

In 2018 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigated claims by medical equipment manufacturers who opposed right-to-repair legislation on the grounds that their products were beyond the ability of independents to competently repair. The FDA report concluded that both independent repair technicians and manufacturers “provide high-quality, safe, and effective servicing of medical devices.”

In 2019 the Federal Trade Commission convened a workshop, aptly titled “Nixing the Fix,” to investigate repair restrictions. The evidence presented made clear that opposition to repair is an industry strategy to control intellectual property (software, schematics, diagnostic tools) for economic reasons. Concern about competent repairs, in other words, is largely a smokescreen.

As and thousands of Repair Cafés worldwide have shown, it’s possible to get good repairs done without paying a premium. Farmers know this. Many of us know it from relying on independent shops or, at times, our own repair skills. Right-to-repair legislation, for which we are overdue in North Carolina, will help to ensure that we continue to enjoy the thrift and freedom that come from being able to fix the things we own.


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Michael Schwalbe
Michael Schwalbe

Michael Schwalbe is professor emeritus of sociology at North Carolina State University. He is the author of "Rigging the Game: How Inequality Is Reproduced in Everyday Life" (Oxford, 2018, 2nd ed.).