What Are “Right to Repair” Laws, and What Do They Mean for You?

Ever wonder why it’s so difficult to repair a smartphone, computer, or game console yourself? It’s no accident: companies make them that way. But thanks to “Right to Repair” legislation, it could get a lot easier to tinker with your electronic toys.

So What’s the Problem Exactly?

Many manufacturers don’t want their customers to be able to repair their devices themselves or take them to local shops to get them fixed there. Instead, they would rather have you pay them to repair your devices, often at a cost that’s much more than what an independent repair shop would charge (and way more than what it would cost you to do it yourself).

To accomplish this, most manufacturers don’t sell genuine replacement parts or offer any kind of repair documentation to anyone. In other words, they want to make it as difficult as possible for anyone but them to fix your broken stuff. Apple has even gone to greater lengths by developing its own screws to hold your iPhone together—and not just common security screws, but proprietary “Pentalobe” screws to prevent users from easily cracking open their devices with a normal screwdriver.

Most of these manufacturers would rather have you just buy a new phone or computer if your current one breaks or wears down, either by making it “impossible” to repair, or charging so much money to fix it that it just makes more financial sense to buy a new device.

Remember the original iPod? It was a great device, but once the battery wore down and no longer held an adequate charge, users couldn’t replace the battery with a new one—not even Apple would replace them. Instead, the company’s official policy was that users should just buy a new iPod. Fortunately, widespread outrage (thanks to a YouTube video, of all things) pressured Apple into starting a battery replacement program.

There was also the Error 53 scandal with the iPhone a couple of years ago. Essentially, users who had their iPhone’s Touch ID home button repaired by an independent shop soon experienced an “Error 53” after updating iOS, which pretty much bricked the device. Apple eventually fixed the issue via a software update, but it was Apple’s subtle way of saying, “Only let us repair your iPhone or face the consequences.”

Now, you’ve always been able to repair your device. Thanks to sites like iFixit, for example, you can buy replacement parts that come from the same suppliers that manufacturers use (even if they aren’t technically “genuine parts”). iFixit has also torn down hundreds of consumer electronics in order to write up thousands of easy-to-follow repair guides that anyone can access for free, along with tools that you can buy in order to adequately complete those repairs (including screwdriver bits that work with Apple’s proprietary screws).

However, there’s only so much iFixit and repair shops can do, which is why “Right to Repair” legislation has been growing in popularity.

What “Right to Repair” Laws Would Do

The 10-second explanation is that Right to Repair legislation would require manufacturers to sell genuine replacement parts and tools, as well as make repair documentation available to anyone.

Keep in mind that this wouldn’t prevent manufacturers from making their devices hard to repair, but it would at least give anyone the resources necessary to do it.

As of right now, 17 states have introduced legislation that would give independent repair shops the same access that the manufacturers have to genuine parts, tools, and information that would help aid in the repair process for consumer electronics. No laws have officially been passed yet in the consumer electronics sector, but the Automotive Right to Repair Law was passed in Massachusetts in 2012, which has a similar template to these new bills.

The good news is that this legislation is gaining steam, especially since the whole iPhone battery scandal was uncovered recently.

What About Those Warranty-Voiding Stickers?

So would these Right to Repair laws finally allow you to bust open your devices without voiding the warranty? Technically, you’ve always been able to bust open consumer electronics yourself without voiding the warranty. Thanks to the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975, it’s actually illegal for companies to void your warranty just because you repaired or modified something yourself. They have to prove that your DIY repair or modification caused something else in the device to malfunction. Which means those scary warranty stickers that you see on a lot of consumer electronics are actually meaningless…at least from a legal perspective.

Of course, the repair technician can always say “sorry, we won’t repair this, you broke the sticker”, and your only recourse would be to sue them—which almost no one will do. So, while those stickers are legally meaningless, they still usually serve their intended purpose: scaring you away from repairing your device (or making you pay for another repair after the fact).

Right to Repair laws aren’t aiming to address this particular issue right now, so you’ll still have to deal with the hassle of these stickers. For now, companies will likely continue to walk a fine line because no one will challenge them, especially since it’s just a lot easier to buy a new device (or pay to have it repaired) than to spend even more money on court fees.

Image from iFixit

Craig Lloyd writes about smarthome for How-To Geek, and is an aspiring handyman who loves tinkering with anything and everything around the house. He's also a mediocre gamer, aviation geek, baseball fan, motorcyclist, and proud introvert.