Do Americans have a right to fix their own stuff?

Amy Harris/Invision/AP/File
Motorcycles are lined up in front of a Harley-Davidson store on Aug. 14, 2020, in Sturgis, South Dakota.
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Do you really own your BMW’s car seat? The answer is not as simple as you might imagine. When you buy a BMW, the seat warmer isn’t really yours. It’s unlocked with a $18.99 a month subscription.

As more products are run by computer software, the question of who owns what becomes less clear. Companies need to protect their hard-earned intellectual property. But at what cost to the consumer? As companies like Harley-Davidson try to prevent customers from tinkering with their own bikes, are the days of the shade-tree mechanic over?

Why We Wrote This

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In a digital age, companies are shifting the definition of ownership. The right to fix your own purchases is at the heart of a growing battle over fairness and the future of American ingenuity.

A raft of bills in state legislatures across the United States is seeking to establish a right to repair. When one failed in Montana recently, a farmer found a different solution: He bought an old tractor he could fix himself.

“Experimentalism is taking things apart and putting them back together,” says Adam Savage, the former co-host of “MythBusters,” a long-running television show. “The idea of having something that you’re absolutely not allowed to do, that shows that the definition of personal space is changing.”

Surrounded on all sides by blinking screens, Jim Moore helms the deck of his computer fix-it shop, MotherBoards Tech. 

Here from his home-based workbench the self-described “total geek” has steered his business for nearly 25 years. Meanwhile, the small repair shop – once a staple of American life – has all but vanished around him.

The reason, he says, is a question of whether independent shops like his even have a right to exist in an era when proprietary software is embedded in nearly every possession.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

In a digital age, companies are shifting the definition of ownership. The right to fix your own purchases is at the heart of a growing battle over fairness and the future of American ingenuity.

“Companies now control their own products,” says Mr. Moore. “You don’t own nothing.”

Mr. Moore’s living-room control deck in the Savannah suburbs is in the vortex of a growing effort in the United States to wrest power back from corporations by establishing a fundamental right to repair your own stuff – whether a tractor, a phone, or a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Ongoing efforts to enshrine that right in roughly half of U.S. states are soldered to a debate that goes back to the ancient Greeks: What does it even mean to own a thing? The answer goes to a deep-seated sense of fairness – once you buy something, it should be yours. But for a nation of do-it-yourselfers, where shade-tree mechanics were long a common sight, it also touches on America’s ability to refuel its natural ingenuity.

Perhaps as the nature of ownership changes, society will change with it. But the new raft of laws is seeking to stake out some place for traditional views of ownership even in an increasingly digital world.

“When we talk about ingenuity as an American value, the founding fathers called it the American experiment,” says Adam Savage, the former co-host of “MythBusters,” a long-running television show that tested theories to show whether they were real or urban myth.

“Experimentalism is taking things apart and putting them back together,” he adds. “The idea of having something that you’re absolutely not allowed to do, that shows that the definition of personal space is changing.”

What changed?

Not so long ago, camera shops were ubiquitous on Main Street. Vacuum cleaner repair people did brisk business. Shade-tree mechanics wrenched away without fear that they would void the warranty on the beast they bought.

But nearly a quarter century after the U.S. Congress passed a law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the question of whether you, yourself, can fix what you own – and if not, is it really yours? – is increasingly a real one.

The legislation was intended to thwart hackers by giving software firms the power to protect hard-earned intellectual property. But critics say the law has also empowered massive corporations to engage in unchecked rent-seeking behavior.

There are printers for sale now with self-kill commands that are activated after a certain number of jobs – so-called enforced planned obsolescence. The automaker Mercedes-Benz uses a subscription service to unlock a speed regulator – meaning lead-foots have to pony up $1,200 to achieve “acceleration increase.” When you buy a BMW, the seat warmer isn’t really yours. It’s unlocked with a $18.99 a month subscription.

That über-American machine, the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, is no longer an amateur mechanic’s meditation. Even though U.S. law forbids it, the company still says the bike’s warranty is void if it is repaired with after-market parts or by noncertified mechanics. These days, Harleys rumble thanks to a computer.

It is largely not a matter of whether a thing can be repaired, critics say, but whether a company can make more money by forcing you to go to a dealer for repairs or encouraging you to buy a new one. When asked, 7 out of 10 Americans say that isn’t right, according to a 2022 Morning Consult poll.

In some cases, “yeah, you’re soldering something that’s the width of a human hair, but ... there is nothing on that circuit board you can’t replace and repair,” says Paul Roberts, right-to-repair activist in Belmont, Massachusetts.

A lot of people, including many lawmakers, he says, “think there are magic spells inside your iPhone and that it’s totally different from a mechanical kitchen mixer or your old Ford from the ’70s.”

Growing pushback

But that view has begun to change. New York became the first state with a right-to-repair law at the turn of the year. Similar bills are moving through half of U.S. state legislatures. Maine voters will make the call in a referendum on right-to-repair later this year.

Smartphone makers like Apple and Samsung have vowed to ease their grip on proprietary tools in order to let third-party vendors – including consumers – to fix their phones. In many cases, the key is getting companies to turn off locks that prevent devices from working with third-party parts.

Seth Perlman/AP/File
Equipment manufacturer John Deere and the American Farm Bureau Federation have signed a memorandum of understanding that ensures farmers and ranchers have the right to repair their own farm equipment.

John Deere on Jan. 8 signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Farm Bureau Federation that will allow farmers to self-diagnose problems – using tools that require subscriptions. John Deere machines roll across about 40% of U.S. farms.

In ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle were at loggerheads over whether ownership is a social good. Modern political theory pits ownership-based societies of capitalist countries against the collective economies of socialism.

The late libertarian Robert Lefevre, author of “This Bread is Mine,” once wrote that the yearning for ownership “is one of the most fundamental facts of life” – that exclusiveness and individualization is driven by a longing for identity.

Given that background, Ata Jami set out to test how ownership impacts behavior. The research assistant professor of marketing at Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois, used a well-known cubicle prop: the NPR coffee cup.

Participants were given cups at the beginning of the study. Some were told the mugs were theirs to keep; others weren’t told anything. The people who felt ownership of the cups exhibited stronger pro-social behaviors, including charity, than those who didn’t know they owned the cups. But Professor Jami also found that threats toward ownership caused people to become more territorial – and thus more likely to engage in selfish behaviors.

That dynamic may be fueling the right-to-repair movement, Professor Jami suggests. The roots of it, he says, can be traced to when software writers stopped selling CDs to consumers and turned instead to subscriptions.

“Maybe because software is not a tangible object, it didn’t hit consumers from the beginning” that they weren’t owners, he says. “But when they got the news, when they could see tangible examples of objects that they used to own and don’t own anymore, they feel this more strongly.”

Old tractors in demand

For Walter Schweitzer, the realization came in the middle of a Montana hayfield.

“Farmers love technology,” says Mr. Schweitzer, who raises beef cattle near Geyser, Montana. But when his equipment broke down and it became clear that the repair would be far costlier than it need be if he could tackle the job himself, he grew angry. Then, he took action.

Last year, Mr. Schweitzer lobbied for a right-to-repair bill, which failed, he says, after industry lobbyists parachuted into Helena to fight it. They claimed the legislation was repetitive and could leave techs out of work and farmers worse off.

So Mr. Schweitzer did what many of his fellow farmers are doing. He bought a 25-year-old tractor. When a transmission light blared, he found a $40 part and spent two hours in the barn fixing it himself.

“A lot of people are now trading in their new tractors for older ones,” he says.

For Mr. Savage of “MythBusters,” the inability to fix one’s own purchases goes to how economies see and treat human beings. “Companies profiteering from every last inch of their thing, it’s leading to a system in which we are no longer customers, but products using things that are also products to sell things to ourselves,” he says. “I don’t view that as Utopia.”

Here on Wilmington Island, Mr. Moore remains skeptical that the right-to-repair movement will find purchase. For one, he says, many Americans are too busy to tinker. And in his view, corporations have grown so powerful that they scoff at attempts by consumers to reestablish sovereignty over their stuff.

That means, he says, “us fix-it guys, we’re living on a hope and a prayer.”

Editor's note: The date of John Deere's memorandum of understanding with the American Farm Bureau Federation has been clarified. 

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