When the Right to Repair Might Be the Right to Live

Many have heard of the “right to repair” movement. Many have not. And the popular understanding seems to be that the “right to repair” movement is a hacker collective looking to make money off the backs of electronics industry giants by modifying and reselling devices. While that is, in some cases, accurate, it’s worth delving into this significantly more deeply.

The RTR movement really came to be with the advent of the DMCA, Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. This act, backed by industry titans, “criminalizes production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent measures that control access to copyrighted works.” On the surface this sounds pretty reasonable. But in practice, it’s a catastrophe for everyone except those titans themselves. Perhaps it’s a bit murky (or even obviously good) when you think of someone selling a product that can attach to a video game console (say, a Nintendo Switch) and allow it to be used in ways Nintendo didn’t intend. The flipside being that when you purchase such a device, it should be yours to do with as you please. If you pay $200 for a Switch and then immediately smash it into the parking lot, shattering it, that is your right. If you pay $200 for a Switch and then immediately give it away – go for it. Pay $200 for a Switch and take it apart? You could run afoul of a law with penalties up to $150,000 in fines and prison time. And it gets much more serious for far more folk than just gamers… and I’ll get to that. But first let’s look at the fallout from this.

Let’s keep with the video game; it may not be something everyone cares about, but… what is, right? So let’s say you scrape by to provide for your family, like so many American families do these days. But it’s Christmas and you’ve been saving to buy a Playstation 4 (yes, no money for a PS5, if you could even find one before Christmas). You purchase the device and your kids are elated for Christmas. You take care to monitor what sort of games they play and how much time they spend in front of a screen, and they bond over it, playing racing games and puzzle games. A year has passed and it’s Christmastime again. You’re currently furloughed because of a global pandemic. But you have $50 to buy your kids a new game you’ve heard them talking about. They open the joint gift and are super excited. After the cards and gifts have been given all around, and everyone has eaten their fill of pancakes, the kids settle in to try their new game, but alas, the optical drive isn’t being recognized and it won’t take their disc. In fact, the whole system seems to be running poorly. And given that it’s now been 370 days since you bought the system, it’s out of warranty.

Here, you need to purchase a new optical drive from Sony. It’s expensive, not easy to come by, and requires you to send in the Playstation to the service center. You very definitely cannot afford this. Of course, you could use some other optical drive, or find a broken Playstation and take it’s drive, or go to a local repair shop. But you cannot, legally, because the drives have digital copyright protection that binds them to a console, and any attempt to circumvent that (i.e.- repair the device not through Sony’s prescribed channel) is unlawful. Even though it’s the optical drive, the kids can’t even play the games they’ve downloaded because of the way the drive is tied into the console. It’s now a paperweight.

This sort of thing does happen, and often these expensive and component-laden devices end up in the landfill. The environment hasn’t won, the consumer hasn’t won, but Sony did because you have to go to them for a new console (or that expensive repair).

Sure, it’s a game console. It’s not “important”. Ok, I’m with you. But sometimes this same issue comes up when it is important.

Let’s go back to that “there’s a global pandemic” scenario. You work in a rural hospital. In recent weeks, the number of patients you’ve been attending has increased significantly. There are now 12 patients in your ICU, even though your ICU is only designed for 8 patients. Six patients need to be on a ventilator, and luckily you have six working ventilators. Overnight, however, another patient needs to be put on ventilation, and one of the ventilators already in use has a critical failure and is unusable. Your medical technologies lady, the one who fixes all of your email problems and hooks up new devices, knows exactly what’s wrong. That’s great! Let’s get it back online and saving a life. Except she cannot. It’s illegal for her to bypass the broken part. It would save a life, it would prevent having to send the device in for repairs (or throw it away). But it would also put the hospital and her, personally, in legal jeopardy. A rural hospital doesn’t have the money to face a legal battle with a major biotech corporation, and Julie even less so. Break the law or let a patient die? That’s the choice. And it’s not a fantasy – this is real life.

The right to repair is also a right not to be wasteful. The right to repair is also a right to fully use items your purchase. The right to repair is the right to own. And sometimes, on unfortunate occasions, the right to repair is the right to save lives.

Support the Right to Repair movement. Write your Congressfolk. Write the Librarian of Congress. Write the US Copyright Office. Write the Office of the President of the United States. Understand that this isn’t all about people doing questionable things – it’s very often about people just being able to take care of things they own.

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