The only function of “intellectual property” is to snatch scarcity from the jaws of abundance — to take goods that, thanks to the advance of human knowledge, should naturally be getting cheaper, and make them artificially expensive. This is nowhere more evident than in the war corporations are fighting against their own customers’ right to repair the items they purchase. Fortunately, as Emily Matchar points out at Smithsonian (“The Fight for the ‘Right to Repair,’” July 13), there are activists fighting for the right to repair.
“Repair prevention,” Matchar says, is a rapidly growing method for enforcing planned obsolescence or turning repairs into a cash cow. Cars and most appliances now have embedded software, which is usually proprietary. “Some companies use digital locks or copyrighted software to prevent consumers or independent repair people from making changes. Others simply refuse to share their repair manuals. Some add fine print clauses to their user agreements so customers (often unwittingly) promise not to fix their own products.”
The price gouging these methods enable is disgraceful. An “authorized” iPhone battery replacement costs $79, compared to the $30 Matchar paid for an unauthorized replacement at a Hong Kong electronics mall, and the $35 iFixit (about which more below) charges for a mail-order replacement kit. Several years ago Julian Sanchez managed to defeat the purposefully impossible to open casing on his iPhone and unjam a button, rather than take the Genius Bar’s advice and replace it for $250 (“Dammit, Apple,” June 2, 2008). Closer to home, my sister recently paid $200 just to have a technician run diagnostic software on her car.
Besides price gouging, this proprietary planned obsolescence takes a heavy toll in wasted resources and environmental destruction. Tech Dump, an organization that refurbishes discarded electronics and sells them to the poor at affordable prices, is only able to refurbish about 15% of the computers, cell phones and TVs it takes in either because replacement parts are proprietary or repair information is closely guarded. Imagine the savings in rare earth metals — a trade associated with some of the worst conflict regions and labor exploitation on Earth — without this barrier to recycling electronics.
Patented spare parts and copyrighted diagnostic software both increasingly lock independent repair shops out of the market.
This is where the right-to-repair activists come in. One of the most notable organizations is iFixit — the purveyor of that nifty unauthorized iPhone battery replacement kit — an online “repair Wiki” which “provides repair instructions and DIY advice and tools.” An independent medical equipment repairman in Tanzania maintains a website (frankshospitalworkshop.com), which hosts manuals and other repair information for infant incubators, heart monitors and the like — a public service for which he is constantly harassed by manufacturers.There’s also a big market in unauthorized jailbreaks for appliances that charge ungodly amounts of money for accessories like ink cartridges.
But the right-to-repair movement still hasn’t had its “Napster moment.” I’m optimistic that it soon will, though. Imagine when there’s an equivalent of The Pirate Bay or SciHub for automotive diagnostic software that shade tree mechanics can download for free. Imagine when there’s a large black market in cheap knockoffs of patented replacement parts churned out by neighborhood garage micro-manufacturing shops.
Everywhere we look, heroes of information freedom are contesting the corporate state’s lockdown on the free sharing of knowledge. What free culture hacktivists have already done to music and academic journals, they’ll soon do to physical manufacturing. Information wants to be free.