Several companies, including Apple, Dyson, and AT&T, object to right to repair laws. Their concerns are not merely attempts to prevent consumers from accessing cheaper options. Granted, some of the arguments about rogue unlicensed vacuum cleaner repairmen preying on innocent consumers seem far-fetched. But the companies are largely motivated by a desire to protect their own property rights and legitimate concerns about the consequences of shoddy repairs.
First, these companies argue that allowing unapproved modifications can create safety risks. For example, they point to the dangers in handling lithium batteries as an example of why consumers might not be adequately prepared for the risks involved in repairing their own devices.
However, it’s not just physical safety concerns. Those opposing right to repair laws also are concerned that poorly “jailbroken” devices may put the technological ecosystem at risk.
While this may seem like a stretch, with so many devices now connected to each other through the Internet, a bad line of code or unintended malware could unintentionally spread like wildfire to other devices. Indeed, many cybersecurity attacks have been carried through networked devices.
These concerns are also related to fears of liability if a consumer poorly tries to fix or modify his or her own device or if such a change affects other devices. In some cases, poor tinkering to a tractor or vehicle could result in catastrophic damage that could kill or maim the consumer or a third party. While in many cases arguments regarding substantial modification may provide legal protection, the cost of even having to settle such claims could be expensive in both financial and brand image costs.
Second, there are legitimate concerns about what unauthorized changes might do to a brand’s image. This is part of why intellectual property laws like the DMCA were created. Brands invest significant capital in the development of their systems and technology, including the diagnostic tools to fix it. The provision and control of these tools allows them to recoup some of the expenses related to their development and ensure brand integrity.
Particularly for brands that have incorporated certain quality standards into their brand’s image, like John Deere and Apple, there are legitimate concerns that poorly-repaired devices might diminish the overall view of the brand’s capabilities. At the same time, such laws have complicated common standards of consumer protection, contract law, and property rights. With the continued growth of software and its imbedding into a wider variety of products, courts will have to examine the impact of such legislative interventions into more traditional common law views of contract and ownership.
Finally, there are questions about when a warranty would be voided and an original creator would no longer be responsible for harm caused by a modified device under such laws. Companies also worry that a consumer whose product was ruined by a faulty third-party repair would have no recourse should the device fail.
In general, product liability law already protects the manufacturer from liability for devices that have be substantially modified, so it is unlikely a manufacturer would liable for a customer’s decision to use unauthorized repair. However, the risks a customer might not be able to recover for an unofficial repair are still present even without a right to repair law. If anything, a customer might be more likely to have recourse against an “unauthorized” repairperson under a right to repair law, then they would without one.