Right-To-Repair Would Let You Fix Your Own Devices

11:52 minutes

a tractor in a field
Credit: Jim Epler/flickr/CC BY 2.0

Whenever your smartphone or video game console breaks down, you usually have to go back to the manufacture or a technician affiliated with the company to have your device fixed. Oftentimes, companies don’t release parts or guides to their devices, making it difficult to repair them own your own.

20 different states have introduced right-to-repair legislation, which calls for companies to open up the ability for individuals to fix their own devices. Recently, senator Elizabeth Warren called for a national right-to-repair law for farming equipment made by John Deere and other agricultural manufacturers.

Jason Koebler from Motherboard and agricultural lawyer Todd Janzen discuss the debate between right-to-repair advocates who want more choice in the hands of consumers and companies who cite security issues and intellectual property rights for keep devices closed.

Segment Guests

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler is Editor-in-Chief of Motherboard, based in New York, New York.

Todd Janzen

Todd Janzen is president and attorney for Janzen Agricultural Law. He’s based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, science debunks your workout recovery routine. If you have a workout recovery method you swear by, give us a call. Our number, 844-724-8255 or tweet us @SciFri. We’ll have our guest evaluate it. Tell us if you’re wasting your time. 

But first, whenever you accidentally drop your phone or your gaming console breaks, you usually have to take it to the manufacturer to get it fixed, don’t you? Or you have to take it to a company-approved repair shop. But if it’s your device, shouldn’t you be able to change the screen or tinker with it yourself? Well, since so much hardware, even cars and tractors, so much of it is controlled by software. It has been argued that just like the software you don’t own, but you license, well, you really don’t own your tractor. So you can’t fix stuff that doesn’t belong to you. 

20 states have adopted legislation called Right to Repair that would let consumers do that, fix their stuff. And last week Senator Elizabeth Warren called for a national law that would allow farmers to repair their tractors and farm equipment. Companies are still pushing back citing security and copyright concerns. 

My next guest is going to take us through the debate. Jason Koebler is Editor in Chief at Motherboard here in New York. Welcome to Science Friday. 

JASON KOEBLER: Hey, thanks for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: When you talk about this Right to Repair, what are we repairing? Is it the software or the hardware, here? 

JASON KOEBLER: It’s usually the hardware. So we’re talking about iPhone screens, batteries, refrigerator filters, tractors, anything that is electronic and has chips in it. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s go to the tractors because I know you spent a lot of time with farmers and their tractors. What’s the issue there? 

JASON KOEBLER: So the issue is that for years, hundreds of years, farmers have been repairing their farm equipment, their tractors, what have you. In the last couple of decades, though, a lot of the pieces inside of the tractor have become computerized. So John Deere and other manufacturers have made it much more difficult for farmers to fix it by putting what’s known as technical protection measures, or DRM, on these things. 

So farmers are unable to replace a transmission without a code from John Deere. They have to have an authorized person come out and use this software called Service Advisor to actually fix it. And farmers are pretty upset about it. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, how upset are they? 

JASON KOEBLER: They’re very upset. So they start actually hacking tractors. I did a story last year where I learned that farmers were downloading pirated software from Ukraine and putting it on their laptops, using it to get into their tractors, and were fixing it themselves. 

IRA FLATOW: And this is what the companies are afraid of, aren’t they? That it will take control of their– 

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah, so John Deere, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, they’ve all pushed back against this sort of thing. They put these software locks on their devices. They pushed against legislation at the state level through these large groups, like CompTIA, and these farm equipment bureaus, and, you know, these large lobbying groups. And so far, no legislation has passed. So they have effectively a repair monopoly at this point. 

IRA FLATOW: Let me bring on a lawyer into the conversation. Todd Janzen is an attorney and president of Janzen Agricultural Law, based out of Indianapolis. Welcome to Science Friday. 

TODD JANZEN: Hey, thanks Ira. Glad to be here. 

IRA FLATOW: Now, I know you work with farmers and small agricultural tech firms. How do you react to all of this? 

TODD JANZEN: Well, it’s all very interesting. And I would say, you know, my farmer clients, for the most part, they’re not raising this concern with me. But it’s not the type of thing that an individual farmer could necessarily hire a lawyer to try and tackle, right? It’s a much bigger issue than that. It’s certainly something that I think requires a legislative fix and not something that our courts, themselves, can address. 

IRA FLATOW: You have written that one of the fixes may be to change the length of the patent you get on something. 

TODD JANZEN: Yeah, actually, I was more thinking in the copyright realm. 

IRA FLATOW: Copyright, right. 

TODD JANZEN: Yes, and with respect to software it is copyrighted, just like you would a book or a Disney movie or something like that. And so that copyright lasts for decades, you know, after the original author is deceased. Or if it’s created by a company, it can last for 90 to 100 years. And so, in my opinion, I think that that’s really too long for software that is going into a very innovative product. And it’d be much better if, after a few years, after the manufacturer recoup their investment on the software, that this went into the public domain and could be tinkered with, modified, et cetera by farmers or whoever else wanted to. 

JASON KOEBLER: Right. So at the moment we have farmers and hackers who are sort of reverse engineering these technical protection measures and are hacking into tractors and other devices. And that’s actually legal under what’s known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The Librarian of Congress has made various exemptions legal, specifically for tractors and other land vehicles. So right now, it is legal to hack a tractor in order to repair it. 

But what Right to Repair activists are asking for is for farmer– is for companies like John Deere to make this sort of information available to everyone, including independent repair companies, including individual farmers, and including consumers at large. 

IRA FLATOW: And Todd, we have here what looks like to be typical of this– all software. All– you know, cell phones, whatever you have. People who say don’t hack into them, and others who say, no, we want to jailbreak them. 

TODD JANZEN: Yeah, absolutely. I think farming is not unique. I mean, it seems to me it’s very similar to an iPhone, right? If an iPhone– Apple does not want you to hack into that and use it for other things. They want to control that. 

And the same is true with a tractor. I think you made a good point to point out how over the course of history, slowly machinery has gotten to be more and more complex and technical and software is a bigger part of that all the time. And so, you know, as software gets to be more important to these equipment manufacturers, they’re going to want to protect that aspect of it, even more than they do now. 

IRA FLATOW: Jason, companies cite security– 


IRA FLATOW: –as a concern, right? 

JASON KOEBLER: So they say security and safety. We even have examples of Apple lobbyists saying, you know, if you try to fix your broken screen, you might cut your finger. Same thing that John Deere’s lobbyists say. You know, if you have someone trying to fix their tractor, they might change the settings. They might, you know, hurt themselves while they’re doing that. 

You know, they have made a lot of different arguments about security, as well, saying that if they give access to different diagnostic software or different tools, you might be making devices less secure. But they haven’t– like their lobbyists at hearings have not issued a coherent narrative about how this would actually make things less secure. 

You have companies, like Apple, who have thousands of different authorized repair people throughout the country who they, you know, authorize and give their software to. That it is them giving up a little bit of control. And the iPhone is not less secure because of that. 

IRA FLATOW: Todd, how would you answer that? 

TODD JANZEN: Yeah, you know, I think that security is a concern. I don’t know if it’s the greatest concern that these equipment manufacturers have. But there were stories– we’ve all heard stories of people being able to hack into cars while they’re driving and take control of them. 

I think that another big issue for companies like John Deere and other equipment manufacturers are the environmental aspect, the emissions of the equipment. A modern tractor has tens of thousands of dollars worth of emissions equipment to make sure that it meets the latest diesel engine regulations. And you could defeat those with– by hacking into the software. And they’d be less expensive to run, but worse for the environment. And I think there is a legitimate concern that companies like Deere have about farmers doing that. And then, somehow, they would be responsible for that. 

IRA FLATOW: Aren’t we really, though, talking about money, here? You’ll make less money if you allowed people to do what they’d like without a license to do it. 

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah, I mean, from my years of reporting, that’s what it keeps coming back to. I mean, these companies do have a business model that’s predicated on controlling the afterlife of their devices. You know, Apple has, essentially, a repair monopoly. John Deere has, essentially, a repair monopoly. And if they lose that, they stand to, you know, open this up to, basically, anyone. And they do stand to lose some money. So that, I think, is their most coherent argument against this, that they like the status quo. And they don’t want to lose it. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, farmers are used to hearing this. They can’t even regrow the corn that they grow, right? They just have a license. They can’t re-put the seeds back in the ground. 

JASON KOEBLER: Right. So Monsanto actually owns the copyright to the seeds. And every year, farmers have to throw these seeds away and buy new ones the next year from Monsanto. There’s actually been lawsuits about this that farmers have lost. It’s illegal for them to replant seeds from year to year. 

IRA FLATOW: Todd, that’s like an early day of something you don’t own. 

TODD JANZEN: Well, yeah, I would say, with respect to seed, that’s true. If it has a specific trait that the company has developed. It’s not necessarily true if it’s a type of seed that doesn’t have a genetic trait that Monsanto or someone else has developed. Then, farmers can still replant it. So in some crops where those traits aren’t used, they still can do that. 

But– but for sure, I think one thing that probably is worth mentioning is that one of the groups that I think is probably most impacted by this would be the independent repair shops. Because in a lot of ways, you know, farmers who may try to fix something themselves. Or they may go to an authorized dealer. But if these independent repair shops don’t have the tools that they need to fix the equipment, they’re probably going to be the ones that lose out the most from these sort of measures. 

IRA FLATOW: So you’re arguing, then, to allow independent repair shops to fix the stuff that they’re not allowed to fix now. 

TODD JANZEN: I think that would be the best for the farmers, if repair shops had the rights to do the same sort of repairs that the dealers had. 

IRA FLATOW: Wouldn’t the farmers like that? 

JASON KOEBLER: They would definitely like it. What I see in my reporting– I focus a lot on iPhone. So there are a lot of independent iPhone repair people who are operating in this very gray area. They’re not able to get parts from Apple, so they have to get them from the gray market in China. And what we’ve seen is the Department of Homeland Security actually seizing some of these shipments. You know, they’re showing up at repair companies’ houses and they’re confiscating this stuff, sending them scary letters. And it’s just a very difficult situation to work in. And in many cases, these independent repair folks are better than the people that Apple employs because they actually do repairs that Apple, itself, won’t do. 

IRA FLATOW: And so they may be using inferior parts, if they can’t get the real stuff. 

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah, in some cases, for sure. I mean, any independent repair person worth their salt sources very high quality parts. But there are definitely people who are using knockoff parts, things that’ll break more easily, and, in some cases, parts that don’t work at all. 

IRA FLATOW: To be continued. Todd Janzen, attorney and president of Janzen Agricultural Law, based out of Indianapolis, and Jason Koebler, Editor in Chief at Motherboard here in New York. Thank you for taking time to be with us, today, both of you. 

TODD JANZEN: Thanks, Ira.

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