When something breaks nowadays, all too often a person's first response is to buy another — even if it can be fixed. One reason for that attitude is that information on how to repair a favorite gadget can be hard to come by.
Kyle Wiens is co-founder and chief executive of iFixIt, a company that provides repair information and parts for a variety of electronic products. He has launched a campaign in support of "right to repair" laws designed to ensure that consumers can modify and repair the devices they own. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why has the freedom to repair become an important issue?
A: As electronics move into physical products, the rights that we expect — the ability to modify and repair our products — are coming into conflict with intellectual property laws. So the IP world is accidentally infecting the hardware world. For example, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was not designed to prevent people from repairing their phones but to stop people from copying DVDs. But the hardware people have figured out they can use that to prevent you from doing what you want with your devices.
Motorola decided to sue Sina Khanifar over cellphone locking in 2001. He was unlocking Motorolas for people. Motorola wanted to stop him. It turned out they could use the DMCA to sue him. That led to him and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others petitioning the Copyright Office for an exemption for cellphone unlocking. The exemption had been renewed a few times, up until the present.
That's one side: saying you cannot bypass encryption. The other side is that you need materials, parts and service manuals. Historically, people have been able to fix things without the service manual, but now you get things like error codes. I have a hot water device that displayed "Error 1201." Without information from the manufacturer about that error code, you can't get the information to fix it.
Some other manufacturers post service manuals on their websites, but Apple has tried to keep them off the Internet. For 15 years, Apple has barred independent facilities from getting access to Apple's service manuals. They send cease and desist letters to people who post copies online.
That was why we started iFixIt: I couldn't get a service manual for my iBook. It was ridiculous. I've been writing my own manuals. All the work we do is pretty duplicative.
America has kind of been built on this idea that we can tinker and modify and improve our things. Local car mechanics have been a fixture of local neighborhoods. Legislation protects local car mechanics. We need the same thing for local electronics repair. There used to be a TV repair guy — they've all gone out of business. It's kind of crazy because TVs break faster and more than ever before.
Q: Isn't an alternate explanation that our gadgets have gotten so cheap that it doesn't make economic sense to repair them anymore?
A: That's a lot of people's assumption: We've stopped fixing because the prices of products have gone down while the price of labor has gone up. That's not the case. The local court system here in our community [San Luis Obispo] had to throw away something like 100 Dell machines worth $500 each. The repair required 90 cents worth of parts and an hour of labor. It might cost $100 to pay a trained technician to do that. The problem is the circuit schematic isn't available.
Information makes the repair economically viable. If someone had put the information online, you'd see millions of those units being fixed. But the initial barrier is so high that no one is out there doing it.
Same thing with TVs. You see a lot of $500, $1,000 LCD TVs failing because of capacitors in the power supply. They're inexpensive repairs but unique to each model of TV. It used to be you could take products apart without information from the manufacturer. You have to have more information flow from the product designers to the repair technician.
Q: Why don't more companies provide this information?
A: The manufacturers used to provide it. I don't know enough about the TV industry to know exactly when and why they stopped providing it. Computers and TVs used to come with the full schematic. Over time, the trend has been to provide less and less information.
The other challenge — this is a challenge for American competitiveness — is that if you go to Shenzhen or Delhi, they have friends [in factories making consumer products for Western companies] giving them circuit schematics. Manufacturers say, "This is proprietary information. People are going to use this information to create clones." But the people who create the clones already get the information through various means. The information is out there for people willing to break the laws. It's repair technicians, the people wanting to do the right thing, that get screwed.
Q: How does this issue work in other industries?
A: The automotive world is probably 30 years ahead of the electronics world when it comes to right to repair. There is regulation requiring automotive companies to provide the independent guys with information.
You get into medical device equipment — hospitals need to be able to repair medical equipment. There's a local clinic here in town that can't repair equipment. Farmers are running into huge issues. I have a friend who's a farmer about half an hour south of here. He can't get the information he needs to train his mechanic. The older equipment he can repair, and he's got three mechanics on staff to do it. The newer equipment he can't do it.
Electronics is infecting other products, so this is going to be a problem in every industry. It's just a matter of time.