Common restrictions include complicated product designs that hinder repair or make it less safe, software locks that prevent a device from being repaired outside of the manufacturer’s repair network, and parts that can only be replaced through the manufacturer.
Gordon-Byrne traces the right to repair movement’s origins to 2012, when Massachusetts put a measure on the ballot requiring that diagnostic and repair information be available to independent car repair shops. It passed with 86 percent of the vote. In 2014, the legislation became a national standard through a memorandum of understanding between groups representing repair shops and automobile associations. “We read it and said, ‘Holy cow. It’s perfect except for one thing: it only says automobiles,’” said Gordon-Byrne.
Representative Morelle, who introduced the federal legislation and drafted New York’s legislation, views these restrictions as a way to benefit manufacturers’ bottom lines, while costing farmers and other electronic consumers. “The cynic in me thinks it’s a way for them to control the economics of the situation, whether it’s planned obsolescence, or making sure that you have to pay a pretty significant premium to get your devices fixed,” he said. The congressperson sees this issue best addressed on a federal level to avoid a “patchwork of 50 different rules and regulations.”
This highly restrictive “repair monopoly,” as advocates call it, has become associated with Apple, which was investigated in 2019 by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee for restricting third-party repairs. Yet companies like Deere & Company employ similar practices that prevent non-authorized dealers and farmers from making many of their own repairs. These practices also hurt independent mechanics who lack access to the necessary tools and diagnostic equipment for many repairs, making it harder for them to compete with authorized dealerships.
While the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) and the Equipment Dealers Association (EDA), trade associations representing the major manufactures, vowed in 2018 that tools and parts would be available for farmers to repair their equipment after January 2021, this promise remains unfilled. Critically, the agreement didn’t include all of the software that is typically available to the dealer. “It amounted to a stalling tactic,” said O’Reilly. “It was a way to push off the legislation.”
O’Reilly says that regulations on the right to repair should include all of the following: “the right to diagnose a problem, the right to purchase parts, and then the right to install those parts yourself, or to go to an independent technician.” He anticipates that the FTC will address these solutions, though this is not explicitly stated in the executive order.
The Computerization of Tractors
Tractors, combines, and other farm equipment have become increasingly software-dependent and computerized in the past several decades. Farmers cannot simply swap out parts because many are serialized, and therefore must be “paired” or “activated” once installed. Only the dealership has the software to enable the pairing. Similarly, if a tractor signals an error—as in Schweitzer’s case in Montana—it often shuts down.
The modern combine can require up to 125 software connected-sensors, connected to a larger controller network, according to a report by O’Reilly at U.S. PIRG. Any problem with this controller network requires diagnostic software. Considering sensors are the most likely part of modern-day farm equipment to fail, this creates a situation where farmers are locked into a costly relationship with the manufacturer for the product’s lifetime.
Tommy Nagle, a beef and vegetable farmer and a board director on the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, recalls how 20 years ago farm equipment was “mainly mechanical—switches, levers, cables, that type of thing.” While Nagle finds the modern equipment easy to operate, he estimates that the repairs have consistently cost him twice the price of the parts. It’s for this reason, as well as the saving in time, that he supports the right to repair.