- - Thursday, April 20, 2023

Oops, you dropped your phone, and it needs repair. Whether you know it or not, you have only one option: Return to the company that made your phone. In the beginning, phone repairs were a monopoly. There’s been some movement away from this by Apple, but in general, neither you nor any independent repair shop has the right to repair your phone. Usually, a simple fix leads to a $399 bill for a $90 repair.

You bought it, but do you own it? Products are designed to require the original equipment manufacturer to perform repairs and modifications. These manufacturers have been known to withhold documentation, tools and parts so that only their designated technicians can service them. As a result, your ownership is more like a rental agreement because you have no right to repair your purchase.

The right-to-repair concept is straightforward. When you purchase a product, you have the right to repair or modify that product yourself or have an independent third party do so, like a local repair shop. Today, there is no legal avenue for the right to repair many products, including electronics, cars, and agricultural and construction equipment.

Without surprise, companies such as Tesla and John Deere oppose the right to repair. Their concerns are primarily over what they call patent infringement, product degradation and safety issues, particularly with automobiles and heavy equipment.

These concerns are valid — sometimes — and should be considered, but the problem remains. It’s particularly acute in agriculture, where farmers invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment that they are unable to maintain or modify. It is common for a new tractor to cost a quarter of a million dollars that must be maintained and repaired through the manufacturer’s dealer. The owner must request a technician to do the work and pay elevated fees for services. It is the farmer’s only option.

In response to customer complaints, John Deere signed a right-to-repair memorandum of understanding with the American Farm Bureau Federation in January. Many farmers and right-to-repair advocates remain skeptical nonetheless. There are provisions allowing John Deere to back out of the memorandum in states that pass right-to-repair legislation, and there is no mechanism of enforcement in the agreement. The problem isn’t solved.

Most people don’t buy tractors. They do buy cellphones and computers, the majority of which can be repaired or modified only by a pricey manufacturer’s technician. You can’t do it, even if you know how.

That has to change. The right-to-repair movement, which is organized through YouTube, independent repair shops, and groups like Repair.org and Ifixit.com, has gained significant momentum. Several state legislatures have filed bills and held hearings on the issue, but no comprehensive legislation has become law so far.

Last fall, President Biden issued an executive order for “Promoting Competition in the American Economy” that included provisions addressing right-to-repair issues. Citing outdated legal authority, several agencies were tasked to pound a square regulatory peg into a legislative round hole, producing no results to date.

More recently, 28 state attorneys general, including some of the most liberal and some of the most conservative, called on Congress to focus on the right of consumers to repair the vehicles, agricultural equipment and consumer electronics they own.

Little progress has been made, however. Congress has addressed the right to repair, but only in segmented legislation for agricultural equipment, automobile and collision repair. What is needed is comprehensive right-to-repair federal legislation. Two such bills have been introduced with broad, bipartisan support.

One is the SMART Act, which was introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, with the support of fellow GOP Reps. Dave Joyce of Ohio and Laurel Lee of Florida, along with Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren of California, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington, to reduce the expense involved with automotive repairs.

The other is the REPAIR Act, introduced by Rep. Neal Dunn, Florida Democrat, and backed by Democrats and Republicans, including Warren Davidson, Ohio Republican, and Rep. Ro Khanna, California Democrat. It would ensure that consumers have access to data relating to their motor vehicles and critical repair information and provide them with choices for the maintenance, service, and repair of their vehicles.

Both are worthwhile. And if they pass, consumers will finally have some measure of security regarding their right to repair and modify the things they buy as they see fit. The consumer’s right to repair will finally be affirmed.

Even though manufacturers don’t care for the right to repair, this is the best process for a fair and equitable resolution to a problem that has been allowed to fester for too long.

• Todd Tiahrt is a former member of Congress who served on the House Appropriations Committee.

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