Nobody likes to clean a cat box, so CatGenie created a self-cleaning litter box. Unfortunately, the CatGenie’s SmartCartridge contains a chip that refuses to operate if the cartridge has been used more than a factory-determined number of times. Even though the purchaser can take apart and refill the SmartCartridge, it still won’t work. The owner is out of luck and must purchase a new SmartCartridge.
Similar software also limits the use of cellphones, cameras, electric tools, cars and other products. It’s digital rights management gone mad, applied to products far beyond the original targets of protection, such as the content on CDs and DVDs. Under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), equipment owners are often prohibited from making repairs to devices with copyrighted software, forced instead to take their equipment to an authorized dealer. Bypassing built-in security voids most warranties and violates the DMCA, which could result in penalties of up to $500,000 in fines and five years in prison.
Both consumers and corporations should be concerned by the repair restrictions placed on digitally controlled products. Consumers, particularly those in the growing maker movement, like to modify equipment and use it in novel ways. But manufacturers have no incentive to accommodate that. In the name of protecting the integrity of their brands, they limit repair options to authorized dealers. That drives independent repair companies out of business, resulting in higher repair costs. For example, Apple charges $70 to install a new iPhone 4 battery although a new battery with DIY instructions is available for $20 on the Web.
To improve the situation, consumers and businesses need to do the following:
- Support proposed “right to repair” laws. The fight to repair cell phones, tablets, gaming consoles and other digital equipment is ongoing. The Digital Right to Repair Coalition is working on legislation in Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York that would give consumers and organizations the right to repair devices that they own. In addition, it would ensure that service information, replacement parts and security updates are available to owners and independent repair organizations.
Equipment manufacturers will resist the proposed laws. John Deere recently told the Copyright Office that, because computer code is used throughout modern tractors, farmers don’t really own the tractors they buy. Rather they get “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.” If this attitude prevails, it will change the definition of a purchase and limit an owner’s ability to resell products that contain computer code.
This is not the first such fight. As automobiles incorporated more electronics, manufacturers attempted to limit the ability of enthusiasts to work on their own cars — a stance that rankled the enthusiasts, independent garages and chains like Jiffy Lube considerably. That coalition eventually prevailed. In 2014, automakers agreed to standardize on Massachusetts law and share the same repair information with independent shops that they make available to dealers.
- Buy products that were designed to be maintained. In 2010, a team of students from Stanford and Aalto University in Finland designed the Bloom, an easy-to-maintain, green laptop. It can be disassembled in 10 steps without tools, using only graphical instructions. By contrast, in a test by the students, it took 45 minutes for a team of three engineers, using three tools, to disassemble a MacBook.
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