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Right-to-repair laws proposed in the US aim to make ownership great again

Bills seek to legalize digital lock breaking when mending stuff, ensure farmers can fix their machines

American farmers may soon be able to repair their agricultural equipment without paying the maker of their machinery for the privilege. And owners of other products may also see fewer repair barriers, depending upon how two new pieces of federal legislation are received.

The Agriculture Right to Repair Act [PDF], a US Senate bill introduced on Tuesday by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), aims to force farm equipment makers to provide parts, documentation, software, and tools for repairs to third parties on reasonable terms.

The Freedom to Repair Act, introduced to the House of Representatives on Wednesday by US Representatives Mondaire Jones (D-NY) and Victoria Spartz (R-IN), promises to "legalize repairing what you own or taking it to the repair shop of your choice" by revising copyright law.

The FTR Act [PDF] exempts "the diagnosis, maintenance, or repair of digital electronic equipment" – except medical devices – from the anti-circumvention provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It also exempts the manufacture, sale, and importation of circumvention products that enable repairs of non-medical devices. If passed, it will make breaking digital locks for the purpose of fixing products legal by default in most cases.

"For far too long, federal copyright law has allowed the most powerful corporations in the world to control who repairs what we own,” said Congressman Mondaire Jones, in a statement. "By entrenching the power of these major corporations, repair restrictions threaten our economy, including the economic well-being of American consumers and small businesses."

The Agriculture Right to Repair Act seeks to prevent farm equipment makers from monopolizing the repair market for their machines. It requires companies to do the following for the sake of for diagnostics, maintenance, or repair:

  • Make documentation, parts, software, and tools available.
  • Enable the removal and restoration of digital locks or security functions.
  • Allow third-party software that provides interoperability with parts and tools.
  • Ensure that patents and copyrights of discontinued documentation, parts, software, or tools get placed in the public domain.
  • Ensure that common tools can be used for repairs without damage or offer specialized tools on reasonable terms.
  • Give farmers control over their data, which equipment makers currently collect and sell.

"I’ve been a farmer my whole life, and I’ve seen the unfair practices of equipment manufacturers make it harder and harder for folks to work on their tractors themselves – forcing them to go to an authorized mechanic and pay an arm and a leg for necessary repairs," said Senator Tester in a statement.

"Manufacturers have prevented producers from fixing their own machines in order to bolster corporate profits, and they’ve done it at the expense of family farmers and ranchers, who work hard every day to harvest the food that feeds families across the country."

Do we own this or what?

Companies that add software to products have found they can retain control of their goods after they're sold by limiting repair access through both digital and contractual barriers. Resentment of such practices has helped fuel the Right to Repair movement, which seeks to make ownership great again – to return control of purchased products to their owners and to restore competition to markets monopolized through intellectual property barriers.

The problem has proven particularly acute for farmers because their machines are necessary and expensive and their margins are slim. Companies like Deere & Co. have prompted lawsuits from farmers over the company's control of spare parts, diagnostic equipment, and software tools through contracts with partners and the assertion of intellectual property rights.

To ward off state repair bills, like Kansas's HB 2122 in 2017, Deere & Co. has argued [.DOC] that decisions to expand access to repair information, documentation, tools, and software should be left to the market rather than legislated.

Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, countered that the agricultural equipment market is essentially controlled by Deere and legislation is necessary to restore competition.

"Ownership is destroyed by contract terms that purport to sell equipment in a complete transaction, and then add references to 'embedded software licenses' that remove rights to use, repair, modify, customize, enhance, adjust, or resell purchased equipment," she wrote in response.

Deere did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since 2014, legislation to support the right to repair products in various industries has been introduced in 34 different states. Now the issue is being confronted on a federal level. The Federal Trade Commission last year said it would do more to support the right to repair. And the Biden Administration has endorsed repair rights.

Faced with these legislative advances, companies like Apple and Microsoft are giving ground in the hope they can limit their loss of control. The proposed laws need to clear all the usual legislative hurdles to make it into the statute books, mind you.

"Right to Repair has clearly reached a new level – and it's becoming more and more clear that the people want a right to fix their stuff," said Nathan Proctor, US PIRG’s senior Right to Repair campaign director, in a message to The Register. "We aren't going away until we can fix our laws, and fix our stuff."

"It's always powerful to see repair shop owners stand up for farmers, or car enthusiasts weigh in about repairing appliances," he added. "I think that's because real fixers understand the basic premise: It's ours and we should be able to fix it." ®

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