At one time, when you bought a product, you owned it and could do with it as you wanted. You could perform your own maintenance, make upgrades and experiment with making upgrades. Entire industries grew up around this concept, particularly in performance cars. You could tinker on your car in the garage to squeeze another few horsepower out of it, or change it’s efficiency, or remodel the body to fit your aesthetic pleasures.
Today, it is a far murkier issue. Many companies, particularly tech companies argue that only the manufacturer has the right to repair or change the product. The consumer is merely a licence holder, not an owner. You are leasing your cell phone, no matter how much you paid for it. Your car is as much computer as machine, and the software is a protected operating system – closed to tinkering.
Companies take one of two standpoints in defending their stance on this: liability and intellectual property rights.
In the first, companies try to protect themselves from users suing them over malfunctions or improper use. The US in particular is a very litigious society, meaning that there are safety labels on just about everything: chainsaws to warn you they are sharp, coffee to tell that it’s hot and toasters to let you know you shouldn’t make toast underwater (um, duh?). Apple doesn’t want you to repair your phone because you might make a mistake and cause your lithium battery to catch fire. John Deere doesn’t want you fixing your combine because you could do something that would injure you or your “significant investment” in it’s equipment.
The intellectual property rights issue is a far harder argument. Software – by not being a physical item – means it’s covered by copyright laws, which grant significant rights to the rights holder. Just like you can’t rewrite parts of your favourite novel to suit your tastes, you can’t edit proprietary software, or break encryptions to do so. The same DRM laws that prevent you copying or editing DVDs and Blue Rays also protect the software that regulates the engine in your car, your tractor.
So where does that leave us, the users?
One answer is to abandon technology in favour of older forms, but that’s a foolish argument. That computer in your car regulates oxygen consumption and prevents producing even more harmful emissions while simultaneously increasing mileage and efficiency. Think of the cars of the 60s and 70s and then think of cars today. Significantly improved. Cellphones give me instantaneous access to a worldwide communications network that lets me learn about NASA’s Mars missions, research medicine, talk to my friend in the UK, my brother in Alberta, business contacts in China and – in between all that – funny cat videos.
What we can do is challenge the companies.
On liability, what has changed so much that repairs we were once capable of making 30, 40, 50, 100 years ago, we are suddenly no longer capable of? The parts have changed, but changing the sparkplugs in my car is the same as it was on the Model T. Replacing parts in a cellphone is no more dangerous than changing high voltage components in old televisions. Are we dumber? Or have we simply been denied access to important repair information by the same companies that preach we are incompetent? If they shared manuals, maybe we can avoid the liability.
Software is a longer, stickier fight. DRM was initially to protect film and music rights, but has gradually expanded to all digital locks and what they lock up, including mundane software. End User Licence Agreements (EULA) force you into a contract with a party that will not negotiate. And often you agree to the EULA after you take possession of the device or software. Changing these laws will take a lot of citizen pressure and support.
So here’s what you can do. Fix what you have. Learn to repair. Repair is freedom, repair creates jobs, repair is sustainable. From iFixit’s website:
You bought it, you should own it. Period. You should have the right to use it, modify it, and repair it wherever, whenever, and however you want. Defend your right to fix.
This simple act of disobedience will push for the change we need.
The Toronto Tool Library now provides a space for the Repair Cafe Toronto to hold weekly repair events from 12-4pm every Sunday at 830 St Clair West – bring something of yours that is broken and they will help you fix it! Borrow an iFixit kit from the Toronto Tool Library (Danforth, Parkdale), visit iFixit.com and learn to fix your own phone and computer. Learn new ways to fix things, like basic electronics and 3d Printing to replace plastic parts. Call your MP. Support groups like the EFF who fight for access and rights in the digital realm. And spread the message!
Graham is a tech-junky, woodworker, and dreamer. He has taught a number of intro tool and woodworking courses at the Tool Library, and has sat on the board of IRBE since 2014 as Treasurer. Graham is also a small business consultant, specializing in retail and sales, learn more at www.greenenterprises.ca