A Win For Harley Riders
Right-to-Repair is a no-brainer. You bought a thing, you want to fix it — or nominate someone else to fix it for you — and the manufacturer doesn’t. How ever can we resolve this intractable difference of opinion?
It’s a real puzzler. Wait, how about this?
Fuck you, I bought it, it’s MINE.
That’s got a real ring to it, doesn’t it?
If you pay attention to this stuff, you may have noticed that manufacturers tie themselves in knots explaining that they should be able to monopolize parts and service for your stuff — to protect you:
- Medtronic: Your choking death is for your own good, because third-party ventilator repairs might be unsafe;
- Wheelchair monopolists: You must be confined to bed for weeks or months because third-party powered wheelchair repairs might be unsafe;
- John Deere: You can’t get the crops before that big storm arrives because third-party tractor repairs might be unsafe (also, if you complain about this, we won’t fix your tractor, ever);
- Apple: You can’t let a mall kiosk replace your shattered iPhone screen because they might backdoor your phone (how can we trust you to pick a repair place when you can’t even hold your phone properly?);
- McDonald’s: Your local franchisee can’t fix its ice-cream machine because third-party ice-cream machine repairs might be unsafe;
- Auto-makers: If third parties are allowed to fix your car, they’ll steal all the data we harvest with it, track you down, and murder you.
The correct answer to all of these claims is “fuck you, I bought it, it’s mine.”
Repair-hating corporations recognize the power of this argument. That’s why John Deere and GM both told the US Copyright Office that you don’t actually own your tractor, or your car, and you can’t ever own them because the software inside them is only licensed, not sold.
Manufacturers have always liked the idea of monopolizing repairs (fun fact, Plutarch had to sue the private equity owners of the shipyard at Delphi to let him do repairs on the Ship of Theseus).
No wonder! Getting to decide whether your customers’ property can be repaired also lets you decide whether they have to buy a new one from you. Being in charge of who can fix your customers’ property lets you force them to pay inflated prices for spare parts. Who wouldn’t welcome a sweet deal like that?
The digital age is a gift to would-be repair monopolists. Laws like Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act criminalize bypassing DRM, so manufacturers booby-trap their products to make it impossible to fix them without bypassing DRM, turning repair into a felony with a five-year prison sentence.
But long before the digital age, manufacturers had another favorite way to coerce their customers into getting in-house repairs: they threatened them. Specifically, manufacturers once routinely threatened to cancel their customers’ warranties if they sought third-party repairs.
In 1975, Congress passed the Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act; a complex law whose subtext can be summed up in seven words: fuck you, I bought it, it’s mine.
Specifically, Magnuson-Moss “prohibits a company from conditioning a consumer product warranty on the consumer’s using any article or service which is identified by brand name unless it is provided for free.” In other words, unless a company wants to provide free service to its customers, it can’t tell them to use its own repair facility or its affiliates’.
The latest company to discover this is Harley-Davidson’s parent company, MWE Investments, an acquisition-hungry holding company that also bought out Westinghouse’s outdoor generator business. In order to maximize its return on those investments, MWE instituted a policy banning its customers from getting repair anywhere but Harley and Westinghouse’s official repair depots.
This is radioactively illegal, despite the fact that many companies have pulled this stunt and gotten away with it, as the FTC turned its head and pretended not to see.
However, there’s a new sheriff in town. FTC chair Lina Khan is part of a trio of Biden appointees (along with Jonathan Kanter at the DoJ and Tim Wu in the White House) who are laser-focused on promoting the interest of people over corporations.
Khan’s FTC just voted 5–0 to open enforcement action against Harley-Davidson and Westinghouse, and they immediately caved, removing the illegal warranty language that threatened to take away your right to service if you dared to fix something on your own, or at a garage or depot of your choice.
The FTC has been doing amazing stuff on Right to Repair, starting with the landmark Nixing the Fix report, which documented the many ways in which companies were ripping off their customers and destroying the planet by blocking repairs. Then there was Biden’s amazing Executive Order on repair, and endorsing federal Right to Repair legislation.
But the vanquishing of Harley-Davidson and Westinghouse shows that we don’t need an EO or a bill to do a lot about repair: all we need is an FTC that’s willing to do it’s job.
And now we have one.
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).