Towards a meaningful right to repair

Products have never lasted forever. Over recent years, however, the average lifetime of products seems to consistently decrease. From fast fashion which typically lasts a single season to electronic devices which swiftly become obsolete as soon as a new iteration or update is released.

This development is particularly worrying regarding modern technological devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc. Due to the complexity of these devices, a single broken or outdated component may render the whole device unusable. As these products are often extremely resource intensive in their production, the possibility to repair a faulty component could go a long way to reduce waste and improve sustainability.

EU to the rescue?

The good news: The EU is aware of the issue and has proposed a solution. In March, the European Commission proposed a Directive on common rules promoting the repair of goods. The proposed legislation aims to establish common rules to promote the repair of goods, and increase the level of consumer and environmental protection by making it easier for professional repairers to assess information and goods that are necessary to repair a product, such as technical documentation and spare parts.

The bad news: While the proposal makes a number of important steps, it fully disregards one of the key obstructions to repairs especially in modern products, namely copyright restrictions.

What could possibly go wrong?

Take the example of John Deere. Several years ago, the company which manufactures a wide range of machinery including tractors as well as household devices such as lawnmowers sparked a public debate following their decision to prohibit the repair of their tractors by third-parties on the basis of copyright restrictions. The company argued that despite the fact that a farmer may own the tractor, the underlying software which oftentimes has to be modified as part of a repair, is copyrighted by John Deere. As a result, farmers as well as professional third-party repairers were prohibited from fixing the machines and instead all repairs had to be conducted by shops specially authorised by the company, leading to delays and opening the door to predatory pricing.

Importantly, this argument is not exclusive to John Deere. In fact, many car manufacturers (including BMW, Ford, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen and many more) argue that modifying the software in a purchased car violates copyright provisions.

The problem is also not limited to the US as proven by Apple when, in the late 2010s, the company fought a 3-year legal battle all the way up to the Norwegian Supreme Court to stop an independent repair shop from conducting screen replacements on iPhones on the grounds of trademark violations.

Where do we go from here?

In order to stop these practices and empower consumers, the EU legislator in the new Directive must make it clear that copyright and related rights shall not prevent the repair of goods.

Furthermore, in order to narrow the knowledge gap and reduce the risk of consumers becoming the victim of abusive pricing, consumers should also be granted access to repair information, such as manuals and spare-part catalogues.

King Charles II of England addresses members of the Estates General, 1660, Theodor Matham, after Jacob Toorenvliet, 1660
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