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Digital right to repair: You bought it, but do you own it?

Alan Earls | Nov. 5, 2015
There's a lot at stake for companies that may find they must rely on OEMs for everything, potentially cutting out roles once filled by VARs and specialized repair outfits.

Computer repairs
Credit: flickr/Gerry Dincher

The Ancient Romans had an adage, freely translated from Latin as “let the buyer beware.” In no uncertain terms, it implied that once you bought something, it was yours – including whatever troubles that might bring. However, nowadays, the act of purchasing something (software and electronics in particular) is encumbered by layers of legalese, which often means that you don’t really own what you just bought -- at least not in the sense that most people are accustomed to.

That has direct implications on the extent to which the “owner” is legally permitted to modify or repair a product and it is true for both consumers and for businesses. It is a situation that has prompted multiple groups to rally around a concept called the “digital right to repair.”

“Repair is not a sexy topic but when people can’t get things fixed, it is a problem,” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Digital Right to Repair Coalition, based in North Haledon, NJ. Her own interest in the topic began, she explains, when she was working in the large scale enterprise IT leasing business. She says part of the  challenge that sector experienced was the steady change in how manufacturers operated. “It used to be that IBM mainframes were open to tinkering – you could change memory, reconfigure them, keep them going, or trade them for parts – until IBM made that impossible,” she says.

Byrne says she was personally motivated to get involved in right to repair because she was selling a database product for the IT service industry and saw a substantial part of her prospect base disappear after Sun was acquired by Oracle and many of the existing terms and conditions affecting Sun products were altered, shortening their service life.

Todd Bone, founder of XS International, Inc., an Alpharetta, GA-based provider of maintenance and repair services for IT, says manufacturers have a near monopoly on hardware maintenance and make 85-90% profit in what he believes is nearly a $100 billion market. “They force obsolescence by ending a product’s lifecycle at five years when some of this equipment has mean-time-between-failure of 32 years,” he says. This forced obsolescence just creates a lot of e-waste, he says. “Meanwhile, they have raised annual maintenance prices by 15% per year; consumers, businesses and the government are getting screwed,” he says.

In truth, the digital part of the right to repair movement has come as something of an afterthought to an automotive right to repair campaign, which has been underway for more than a dozen years. But there is an implicit digital component there, too. In essence, as cars have grown more suffused with electronics, local and independent repair shops have faced more difficulties diagnosing and repairing vehicles because more and more of the value is engineered into the electronics – and the software.


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