When something breaks nowadays, all too often a person's first response is to buy another — even if it can be fixed. Some believe one of the reasons that attitude has become so common is that information on how to repair a favorite gadget can be pretty hard to come by.
Kyle Wiens is co-founder and CEO of iFixIt, a company that provides repair information and parts for a wide variety of electronic products. He recently launched a new campaign in support of "right to repair" laws designed to ensure that consumers can modify and repair the devices they own. We spoke by phone Jan. 6. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Timothy B. Lee: Why has the freedom to repair become an important issue?
As electronics move into physical products, the rights that we expect — the ability to modify and repair our products — are coming into conflict with IP laws. So the IP world is accidentally infecting the hardware world. [For example, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act] was not designed to prevent people from repairing their phones but to stop people from copying DVDs. But the hardware people have figured out they can use that to prevent you from doing what you want with your devices.
For example, Motorola decided to sue Sina Khanifar over cellphone locking in 2001. He was unlocking Motorola [phones] for people. Motorola wanted to stop him. It turned out they could use the DMCA to sue him. That was what led to him and EFF and others petitioning the Copyright Office for an exemption [for cellphone unlocking]. The exemption had been renewed a few times, up until the present.
That's one side [of what's impeding repair of devices]: saying you cannot bypass encryption. The other side is that you need materials, parts and service manuals. Historically people have been able to fix things without the service manual, but now you get things like error codes. I have a hot water device [in my house that broke and displayed] "Error 1201." Without information from the manufacturer about what that error code means, you can't get the information to fix it.
Some other manufacturers post service manuals on their Web sites, but Apple has proactively tried to keep them off the Internet. For the past 15 years, Apple has barred independent facilities from getting access to Apple's service manuals. They send cease and desist letters to people who post [copies] online.
That was why we started iFixIt, I couldn't get a service manual for my iBook. It was ridiculous. I've been writing my own manuals. All the work that we do is pretty duplicative.
America has kind of been built on this idea that we can tinker and modify and improve our things. Local car mechanics have been a fixture of local neighborhoods. Legislation protects local car mechanics. We need the same thing for local electronics repair. There used to be a TV repair guy, they've all gone out of business. It's kind of crazy because TVs break faster and more than ever than ever before.
Isn't an alternative explanation that our gadgets have just gotten so cheap that it doesn't make economic sense to repair them any more?
That's a lot of peoples' assumption: We've stopped fixing because the prices of products have gone down while the price of labor has gone up. That's not the case. The local court system here in our community [San Luis Obispo] had to throw away something like 100 Dell machines worth $500 each. The repair required 90 cents worth of parts and an hour worth of labor. It might cost $100 to pay a trained technician to do that. The problem is the circuit schematic isn't available.
Information makes the repair economically viable. If someone had put the information online, you'd see millions of those units being fixed. But the initial barrier is so high that no one is out there doing it.
Same thing with TVs. You see a lot of $500, $1,000 LCD TVs that are failing because of capacitors in the power supply. They're very inexpensive repairs, but unique to each model of TV. Part of why this is an issue now, it used to be you could take [products] apart without information from the manufacturer. You have to have more information flow from the product designers to the repair technician.
Why don't more companies provide this information?
The manufacturers already have this information. They used to provide it. I don't know enough about the TV industry to know exactly when and why they stopped providing it. Computers and TVs used to come with the full schematic. Over time the trend has been to provide less and less information.
The other challenge — this is a challenge for American competitiveness — is that if you go to Shenzhen or Delhi, they have friends [in factories making consumer products for Western companies] giving them circuit schematics. [Manufacturers] say "this is proprietary information. People are going to use this information to create clones." But the people who create the clones already get the information through various means anyway. The information is out there for people willing to break the laws. It's repair technicians, the people wanting to do the right thing, that get screwed.
How does this issue work in other industries?
It's less an issue [in the automotive industry]. There was the Right to Repair bill in Massachusetts last year, addressing the automotive industry. The automotive world is probably 30 years ahead of the electronics world when it comes to right to repair. There is regulation requiring automotive companies to provide the independent guys with information.
You get into medical device equipment, hospitals need to be able to repair medical equipment. There's a local clinic here in town that can't repair equipment. Farmers are running into huge issues. I have a friend who's a farmer about half an hour south of here. He can't get the information he needs to train his mechanic. The older equipment he can repair, and he's got three mechanics on staff to do it. The newer equipment he can't do it.
Electronics is infecting other products, so this is going to be a problem in every industry. It's just a matter of time.
What needs to happen to protect the right to repair?
We need comprehensive right to repair legislation along the lines of the Right to Repair legislation in the automotive world. Manufacturers need to provide consumers with the parts and information they need to be able to do repairs. The Massachusetts bill last year was the beginning. I anticipate that we're going to see a wave of this legislation introduced around the country. It's also a factor as Congress looks at copyright. Section 1201 [of the DMCA, which makes it illegal to crack copy protection] needs some specific revisiting.
Last year, we had a big debate about cellphone locking, with people proposing regulations or legislation requiring that consumers be able to unlock despite the limits of the DMCA. Is that kind of application-specific reform sufficient, or do we need more comprehensive DMCA reform?
It comes down to intent. If Section 1201 said it's illegal to circumvent protection for the purpose of violating copyright, [that would be] justified. But if I have a product, I should be able to jailbreak it if I want to. That's different from selling bootleg DVDs on the street. There should be an assumption that repair is an expected use of the device.
Existing IP laws are designed around locking down content. That's how we thought we'd deal with content in the 1990s: a marriage of IP for movies with physical property where there's all sorts of legal precedent for the ability to modify and tinker with physical hardware. You can take a phone and hook it up to AT&T's phone lines. There's a huge legal body of groundwork of freedoms that we can do with physical products. But there's very limited freedoms with digital products. Now all those limitations from the digital realm are infecting the digital world.
I don't think this is one issue that's going to be addressed in one place and then go away. There will be an ongoing tension over the next decade or two of legislation.
Your proposal goes beyond reforming the DMCA. Why are additional steps needed?
Reforming the DMCA allows you to actually do [a repair], but the knowledge about how to do it needs to be communicated. [Think about] the environmental implications of the vast variety of products being introduced at CES every year. Those products are consumed for a very brief period of time and then tossed away. We're not able to fix a lot of them because we just don't have the knowledge.
Electronic waste is a big problem. It's incredibly toxic. Substantial amount of toxins going into the water stream. The source of the e-waste problem is we're using things for shorter and shorter periods of time, and we're losing repair jobs at the same time. It's an opportunity to shore up the domestic economy and substantially improve the environment.
Requiring manufacturers to provide instruction manuals makes sense to me — they've already got the data and Internet distribution is cheap. But requiring manufacturers to provide parts too seems like it could be burdensome.
It totally depends. There's a California law that requires manufacturers to make parts available for 7 years for any electronics that cost over $100. The manufactures are all complying. I don't think there's legislation with cars but there's been negotiations with independent parts [dealers]. You can have [original parts] for 1,000 or aftermarket for 500. The automotive manufacturers make a tremendous amount [of money] on parts. It's a chicken and egg problem [for electronics] because there isn't a parts market because they've strangled off the independent repair guys.
We need to either require manufacturers to provide the parts or let third parties produce them without patent issues. We'd love to make some parts, but Apple won't let us because we'd be violating Apple's patents, and they won't grant us a license on them.
There's no possible way to get the parts then. They won't sell them, we can't make them because we can't get a license on the patents. Consumers lose, the environment loses.