In recent years, there has been a growing push in different U.S. states towards legislation that would provide consumers with a “right to repair” their products. Currently 18 states have pending legislation that would require product manufacturers to make available replacement parts and repair manuals. This grassroots movement has been triggered by a combination of related factors. One such factor is the ubiquity of microchips and software in an increasing number of consumer products, from smartphones to cars, which makes the repair of such products more complicated and dependent upon the availability of information supplied by the manufacturers. Another factor is the unscrupulous practices of large, multinational corporations designed to force consumers to repair their products only through their own offered services, and ultimately, to manipulate consumers into buying newer products instead of repairing them. These factors have rallied repair shops, e-recyclers, and other do-it-yourselfers to push forward, demanding a right to repair.
Unfortunately, though, this legislation has stalled in many of the states. Manufacturers have been lobbying the legislatures to stop the enactment of the right to repair laws based on different concerns, including how these laws may impinge on their intellectual property rights. Indeed, a right to repair may not be easily reconcilable with the United States’ far-reaching intellectual property rights regime. For example, requiring manufacturers to release repair manuals could implicate a whole host of intellectual property laws, including trade secret. Similarly, employing measures undercutting a manufacturer's control of the market for replacement parts might conflict with patent exclusivity. Nonetheless, this Article’s thesis holds that intellectual property laws should not be used to inhibit the right to repair from being fully implemented.
In support of this claim, this Article develops a theoretical framework that enables justifying the right to repair in a manner that is consistent with intellectual property protection. In short, the analysis demonstrates that a right to repair can be justified by the very same rationales that have been used traditionally to justify intellectual property rights. Based on this theoretical foundation, this Article then explores, for the first time, the various intellectual property rules and doctrines that may be implicated in the context of the current repair movement. As part of this overview, this Article identifies those areas where intellectual property rights could prevent repair laws from being fully realized, even if some of the states pass the legislation, and recommends certain reforms that are necessary to accommodate the need for a right to repair and enable it to take hold.I thought this was an interesting and provocative paper, even if I am skeptical of the central thesis. I should note that the first half of the paper or so makes the normative case, and the authors do a good job of laying out the case.
Many of the topics are those you see in the news, like how laws that forbid breaking DRM stop others from repairing their stuff (which now all has a computer) or how patent law can make it difficult to make patented repair parts.
The treatment of trade secrets, in particular, was a useful addition to the literature. As I wrote on the economics of trade secret many years ago, my view is that trade secrecy doesn't serve as an independent driver of innovation because people will keep their information secret anyway. Thus, any innovation effects are secondary, in the sense that savings made from not having to protect secrets so carefully can be channeled to R&D. But there was always a big caveat: this assumes that firms can "keep their information secret anyway," and that there's no forced disclosure rule.
So, when this article's hypothesized right to repair extended to disclosure of manuals, schematics, and other information necessary to repair, it caught my eye. On the one hand, as someone who has been frustrated by lack of manuals and reverse engineered repair of certain things, I love it. On the other hand, I wonder how requiring disclosure of such information would change the incentive to dynamics. With respect to schematics, companies would probably continue to create them, but perhaps they might make a second, less detailed schematic. Or, maybe nothing would happen because that information is required anyway. But with respect to manuals, I wonder whether companies would lose the incentive to keep detailed records of customer service incidents if they could not profit from it. Keeping such records is costly, and if repairs are charged to customers, it might be better to reinvent the wheel every time than to pay to maintain an information system that others will use. I doubt it, though, as there is still value in having others repair your goods, and if people can repair their own, then the market becomes even more competitive.
While the paper discusses the effect on the incentive to innovate with respect to other forms of IP, it does not do so for trade secrets.
With respect to other IP, the paper seems to take two primary positions on the effect of immunizing IP infringement for repair. The first is that the right to repair can also promote the progress, and thus it should be considered as part of the entire system. While I agree with the premise from a utilitarian point of view, I was not terribly convinced that the right to repair would somehow create incentives for more development that would outweigh initial design IP rights. It might, of course, but there's not a lot of nuanced argument (or evidence) in either direction.
The second position is that loosening IP rights will not weaken "core" incentives to develop the product in the first place, because manufacturers will still want to make the best/most innovative products possible. I think this argument is incomplete in two ways. Primarily, it assumes that manufacturers are monolithic. But the reality is that multiple companies design parts, and their incentive to do so (and frankly their ability to stay in business) may well depend on the ability to protect designs/copyright/etc. At the very least, it will affect pricing. For example, if a company charged for manuals, it may be because it had to pay a third party for each copy distributed. Knowing that such fees are not going to be paid, the original manual author will charge more up front, increasing the price of the product (indeed, the paper seems to assume very little effect on original prices to make up for lost repair revenue). Secondarily, downstream repairs may drive innovation in component parts. For example, how repairs are done might cause manufacturers to not improve parts for easy repair. The paper doesn't seem to grapple with this nuance.
This was an interesting paper, and worth a read. It's a long article - the authors worked hard to cover a large number of bases, and it certainly made me think harder about the right to repair.