We’ve written many times about the right to repair and how various companies have basically destroyed the concept of ownership by putting all sorts of post-purchase restrictions on what you can do with the products you supposedly “bought.” This began with copyright, but has morphed into other areas as well, including abusive and illegal claims about “warranty void if removed.” I still believe that excessive copyright law is to blame for all of this, as physical goods manufacturers looked at the post-sale restrictions enabled by copyright law and immediately began to think of ways to use that on physical items.
This lack of a “right to repair” is showing up in more and more places including, somewhat incredibly, the US military. The NY Times recently ran an op-ed from Capt. Elle Ekman, a logistics officer in the US Marine Corps., expressing her dismay at how the lack of right to repair laws is actually making it difficult to impossible for the US military to repair its own equipment. The whole thing is really stunning.
I first heard about the term from a fellow Marine interested in problems with monopoly power and technology. A few past experiences then snapped into focus. Besides the broken generator in South Korea, I remembered working at a maintenance unit in Okinawa, Japan, watching as engines were packed up and shipped back to contractors in the United States for repairs because “that’s what the contract says.” The process took months.
With every engine sent back, Marines lost the opportunity to practice the skills they might need one day on the battlefield, where contractor support is inordinately expensive, unreliable or nonexistent.
I also recalled how Marines have the ability to manufacture parts using water-jets, lathes and milling machines (as well as newer 3-D printers), but that these tools often sit idle in maintenance bays alongside broken-down military equipment. Although parts from the manufacturer aren’t available to repair the equipment, we aren’t allowed to make the parts ourselves “due to specifications.”
Ekman notes that this problem has gotten worse over time, not just because of companies trying to block the right to actually fix what you own, but because of the trend to push R&D out of the military into the commercial sector, and then for the military to purchase from that commercial sector. When the military built its own stuff, of course it could repair it. But now it relies on standard commercial contracts, which apparently are blocking the right to repair and leaving US service men and women with subpar equipment that could (and should) have been fixed much faster. And Ekman expects the problem to only worsen:
The effects of the right-to-repair paradigm will become only more significant and restrictive as older military vehicles and systems are replaced with equipment that is more complex and involving more electronics. Already complicated equipment designs lead to situations where the manufacturer is the only source for repairs.
Again, this is an issue that reaches far and wide, well beyond the claims of “piracy” or “knock-offs” that some people insist is at the heart of the right to repair movement. When the military has to worry about whether or not it can have the best equipment working properly because of a bullshit commercial contract, we have a real problem:
Fundamentally, service members just want to ensure that their gear is ready to meet mission requirements. While a broken generator or tactical vehicle may seem like small issues, the implications are much larger when a combat ship or a fighter jet needs to be fixed. What happens when those systems break somewhere with limited communications or transportation? Will the Department of Defense get stuck in the mud because of a warranty?
It’s well past the time that the right to repair was established as a fundamental right. People who insist on supporting “property rights” are frequently on the wrong side of this argument, by claiming that the “contract right” supersedes the “right to repair.” But that’s ridiculous and truly an attack on actual property rights and ownership. If you own something, you should be able to take it apart, to modify it, and to fix it, without it violating any contracts or laws.