If you've ever felt the hurt of shelling out $200 to fix your MacBook or repair your broken iPhone screen, then you might know how important it is to break the monopolistic hold huge corporations have on the world of consumer product maintenance, which is where the right to repair comes in.
Is Bernie Right about Repair?
Recently, Senator Bernie Sanders unveiled his plans to overhaul the agriculture sector and “Revitalize Rural America” on his 2020 presidential campaign website. While much of the text in this section is predictable and on brand for Sanders—who blames the business sector and capitalism for most problems, there is one area that stands out: his stance on the issue of the right to repair.
“In rural America today, farmers can’t even repair their own tractors or other equipment because of the greed of companies like John Deere,” the site reads. It then promises that, if elected, Sanders will “pass a national right-to-repair law that gives every farmer in America full rights over the machinery they buy.”
Sanders may be wrong on a number of issues, but when it comes to a consumer’s right to repair, he is absolutely correct. And while he may not recognize it, his stance on this issue is actually more aligned with free-market economics than it is with democratic socialism.
What Is The Right to Repair?
For anyone unfamiliar with the term, “right to repair” refers to each individual’s right to fix or alter their own purchased property without having to go directly through the manufacturer to do so. Often times, this means paying high costs or facing negative consequences—like a voided warranty—if repairs are made by a third-party or by the individual consumer themselves.
Today, many have to pay a large fee just to have their equipment digitally unlocked by John Deere before it can be fixed.
It might seem almost absurd that the “right to repair” is even an issue, especially since many of us have routinely attempted, to varying degrees of success, to fix many of our own household appliances and devices. Yet, many corporations and companies from PlayStation to Apple have erected barriers that make it harder for consumers to repair the property that belongs to them.
As Wired explains:
Increasingly, companies use a variety of tactics to block access to repair. Companies either don’t sell replacement parts, or they sell them at big markups. They don’t make repair information, such as manuals or schematics, publicly available or open-source. They manipulate the software so that if you get unauthorized repairs done, the device locks until the manufacturer unlocks it. This forces the customer to take any problem to the original manufacturers, who can charge whatever they want. This also means the manufacturing companies have all the cards to decide if, when, and how much it costs to fix something.
John Deere, who Sanders mentions specifically because of the role the company plays in the agricultural sector, has been a huge culprit of inhibiting a consumer’s right to fix what is rightfully theirs, which has caused major financial burdens for farmers.
As farming equipment has become more sophisticated and tech-reliant, it has become increasingly more difficult for farmers to perform their own repairs. Today, many have to pay a large fee just to have their equipment digitally unlocked by John Deere before it can be fixed. And if they cannot afford to pay the manufacturer's price, they are unable to use their equipment to earn a living. However, John Deere is just one company of many utilizing this strategy.
But Wait, There's More!
Another company inhibiting a consumer’s right to repair is Apple. Apple relies on what are called "End User License Agreements" to monopolize the repair of its products. If you've ever noticed that some iPhone repair establishments boast of being an “Apple Authorized Dealer,” this means a shop has had to pay a fee to Apple in order to be given the authority to repair its products, effectively monopolizing who is allowed to fix Apple products.
Unfortunately, a consumer does consent to the terms of the contract when buying a product with a manufacturer's warranty.
This causes prices to go up for consumers who are limited as to where they can take their devices to be repaired. For those who choose to go to an unauthorized dealer, their warranties with Apple become void.
In addition to Apple and John Deere, the video game industry is also guilty of impeding the right to repair. They do this by attempting to control who is allowed to repair their gaming consoles. In 2017, The Entertainment Software Association, a trade organization that includes Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, and others, worked diligently to block legislative efforts in support of right to repair legislation in Nebraska. Additionally, both Sony and Microsoft have “tamper-proof” stickers on their consoles, which warn the user that their warranty is void if they attempt to fix their device themselves.
Although this is most certainly a slimy move by many corporations to void warranties, make extra money on repairs, and force consumers to buy completely new products, a consumer does, in fact, consent to the terms of the contract when buying a product with a manufacturer's warranty.
However, this situation became especially frustrating when both the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 had significant, widespread problems that left many consoles broken and useless to users. While Xbox 360s plagued by the infamous “red ring of death” were refurbished free of charge, so long as consumers were willing to send back their machines to Microsoft for repairs, PlayStation 3 consoles cost $200 to be fixed.
The flaws in both systems did not sit well with the gaming community, who were unimpressed with the handling of the situation. Had independent parties been allowed to fix these consoles, both companies might have saved themselves from angry consumers who were dealing with a manufacturing flaw and not a problem born of their own doing.
Interestingly enough, these “tamper-proof” stickers are actually illegal under a federal law called the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty. However, most consumers cannot afford to pay all the legal costs associated with taking these giant corporations to court. And thus, most never challenge the warranties. Not to mention, so long as no one is being physically harmed, passing legislation that restricts how a private company can conduct business is not an ideal solution, even if its actions are shady.
Lexmark placed a chip in its single-use cartridges that rendered them useless if a consumer attempted to refill it with ink.
Lexmark, the printer company, took the fight against the right to repair even further than these other companies, eventually arguing its case in front of the Supreme Court in 2017. Everyone with a printer knows that it is exorbitantly expensive to replace the ink cartridges. Impression Products wanted to help consumers save money by refilling their existing Lexmark printer ink cartridges with toner instead of having to buy an entirely new cartridge.
Lexmark had placed a chip in its single-use cartridges that rendered them useless if a consumer attempted to refill it with ink. Impression Products, along with other small companies, found a way to disable the chip and refill the cartridges at a low cost.
Impression Products’ innovative solution to a frustrating consumer problem didn’t sit well with Lexmark, who sued for patent infringement and fought the company all the way to the highest court in the land. Unfortunately for Lexmark, the court ruled against it, declaring that the company’s patent rights were exhausted with the first sale of its toner cartridges and that consumers had every right to alter or fix property they rightfully owned.
Bernie Is Right, But for the Wrong Reasons
To some extent, Sanders is correct to call out corporate greed over the struggle for a consumer’s right to repair. Many corporations resort to shady tactics in order to charge consumers more to fix their products or force them to buy entirely new products, as Lexmark has demonstrated.
The antidote to corporate greed is actually found within free market principles.
However, whether Sanders and his supporters realize it or not, above all, the argument in favor of the right to repair is actually an argument in favor of private property rights—something democratic socialists are typically against.
Once a product is purchased and money exchanges hands, the consumer becomes the sole owner of said property. This gives them the right to alter or repair a product in any manner they see fit. If manufacturers can literally remotely lock you out of your own property for having "unauthorized" repairs done, effectively holding your property hostage until you take it to an authorized dealer or until you pay their ransom to get it back, then whose property is it?
Sanders might not be a fan of big corporations, but the antidote to corporate greed is actually found within free market principles, like an individual's right to do as they will with their own private property.