It’s Time for Congress to Ensure the Right to Repair. Here’s How.

The Freedom to Repair Act amends Section 1201 to no longer make circumventing software locks in order to maintain, repair, or diagnose broken electronic equipment a violation of copyright law.

The right to repair is a basic concept: If you own a piece of technology and it breaks, you should have a legal right to repair it. While all Americans technically have the right to repair their gadgets, there are many obstacles to doing so. Among them are: (1) the lack of access to the tools, parts, and information consumers need to repair their devices, and (2) copyright law, specifically Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). 

Consumers, even if they have the legal right to repair their devices, may not have access to the tools, parts, or information required to do so. In an extreme example of this, many Apple products use proprietary screws to prevent consumers and small repair shops from having the tools to even open up their devices. 

There is legislation that will make it easier for device owners and independent repair shops to access the tools, parts, and information they need to repair devices. Rep. Joe Morelle’s proposed legislation, known as the Fair Repair Act, requires manufacturers to make diagnostic information, tools, and parts readily available to consumers and small repair shops—tackling a large barrier to repair rights. Currently, consumers often have to choose between throwing away a device if just one part breaks or sending it to official repair channels that are often exorbitantly expensive. The proposed legislation solves a major part of the problem, but it is not the only solution and does not address the underlying copyright issues.

The other major hurdle for the right to repair is Section 1201 which makes it illegal for consumers to break a digital lock that protects a copyrighted work—even when they need to do so to repair their devices. In 2018 and in 2021, the Copyright Office granted 1201 exemption requests for repair in major victories for right to repair advocates. These victories are important, but the process itself is convoluted and right to repair advocates should not have to petition every three years to be able to fix their own devices. There needs to be legislation to fix the 1201 process.

President Biden signed an Executive Order in July of this year addressing the underlying copyright issue for the right to repair. It encourages the Federal Trade Commission to exercise its rulemaking authority to address “unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items, such as the restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment.” The Executive Order addresses the fundamental copyright issue, but it does not have the enforcement mechanism needed to effectively reform copyright law. Congress has to step in to fix this issue. While it is an important part of the solution, it must be paired with legislation that has an enforcement mechanism to be successful.

Rep. Mondaire Jones recently introduced the Freedom to Repair Act, which will reform Section 1201 in order to ensure that copyright is not misused against consumers. The bill amends Section 1201 to no longer make circumventing software locks in order to maintain, repair, or diagnose broken electronic equipment a violation of copyright law. It also makes legal using, manufacturing, importing, or providing products used to diagnose, maintain, and repair electronic devices. This bill will allow consumers to repair their own electronic equipment without having to go to the Copyright Office every three years to ask for an exemption. The protections to consumers that this bill will add to Section 1201 are necessary to ensure everyone has the right to repair all of their own devices. 

The right for consumers to repair their devices is important. It will cut down on costs for consumers by allowing them to fix their devices instead of having to purchase new ones. This will decrease device waste and environmental problems associated with technology waste. It is a multifaceted issue that requires a multipronged approach. Congress should start by passing Rep. Morelle’s bill, but should not stop there. Rep. Jones’s bill that reforms the Copyright Act to ensure that consumers are allowed to repair their own devices without the threat of breaking copyright law is incredibly important and Congress should treat it as such.