Some state lawmakers want to regulate the repairs of countless consumer gadgets and equipment, from smartphones and microwave ovens to farm tractors and medical devices. Their big idea, introduced in at least a dozen states, is to force manufacturers to sell repair parts, tools and documentation to independent repair providers. Unfortunately, this will do more to drive up prices and trample property rights than to make repairs easier and more affordable.
“Right to repair” advocates claim consumers lack repair options. They decry a monopoly on aftermarket repair across many product manufacturers. Perhaps most are unaware that less than a quarter of people reported having their product repaired by the original manufacturer, according to a national survey by Consumer Reports, a pro-right-to-repair organization. Most people don’t go to the manufacturer when their device or appliance has trouble.
Smartphones are poised to be most affected by the legislation, being the most commonly owned digital device. Already, consumers have several options when faced with a broken smartphone. Repair services are available from the original manufacturer, their service provider, a certified or independent repair shop, a chain repair business, or a booth in their local shopping mall. There are more than 9,000 businesses engaged in cell phone repair, like fixing cracked screens, and the industry is expected to continue its growth.
Alternatively, consumers can opt to replace their smartphones. That’s what a majority of people do. Around 59 percent of people would instead replace their smartphone than pursue a repair, according to the electronic repair company uBreakiFix.
The business was founded in a college dorm room in 2009 and has grown to a multi-million-dollar valuation with more than 600 locations. Another former dorm room start-up, iFixit, created a business providing repair tools, parts and manuals for dozens of consumer electronics. The company has also expanded, announcing a $24 million investment to establish an East Coast hub in Tennessee.
With companies like uBreakiFix and iFixit already providing repair services, parts, tools and manuals, what would laws like the Digital Right to Repair Act accomplish?
Government mandates impose compliance costs, increasing the cost of manufacturing devices and ultimately making them more expensive for consumers. Mandates will also lead to lower-quality devices as manufacturers revisit product designs to better comply with the law economically.
And the legislation has another big downside: it infringes on essential property rights.
A recent Hudson Institute report indicates that the bill would likely violate federal copyright law on day one of enactment. Further, the legislation establishes compulsory contracts in which manufacturers would be forced to sell private property — tools, parts and proprietary information that may or may not be pertinent for repair purposes.
Another consideration is that manufacturers have voluntarily entered into hundreds of contracts with certified shops to ensure quality repairs. Those existing agreements would have little value to their shop owners — primarily small business owners — if competing, non-certified providers could acquire the same parts and tools on the same terms. Worse, right-to-repair bills would ultimately prohibit manufacturers from declining to do business with a repair shop with a poor service history.
For all the drawbacks, right-to-repair bills wouldn’t do much to help consumers get their gadgets repaired. Consumers already have the right to repair their products, exemplified by the thousands of businesses and jobs currently in the trade. It’s a marketplace that’s working.
Shortsighted government regulation would break a system that doesn’t need fixing.