Recently, The U.S. House Committee on Small Business held a hearing on the Right to Repair and what it signifies for business owners. Gay Gordon-Byrne, the Executive Director of the Digital Right to Repair Coalition, testified at that hearing.
Afterward, she spent some time with Small Biz Trends to explain Right to Repair legislation and the impact it will have on small businesses.
In this episode of Small Biz in :15, Gordon-Byrne discusses what the future of Right to Repair laws holds and how small business owners can get involved.
Here’s an edited transcript of this episode. A SoundCloud player to listen and subscribe there is below.
What is the Right to Repair?
Shawn Hessinger: Let’s start by explaining the Right to Repair. What does it mean exactly?
Gay Gordon-Byrne: Well, it doesn’t actually mean a legal right. It’s kind of a phrase. The auto industry started using the phrase ‘Right to Repair’ when they started fighting for the opportunity to buy and manufacture diagnostics and tools…they weren’t selling them anymore to the independent mechanics.
So, they passed some legislation and called it Right to Repair. It’s really just the idea that if you buy something, the manufacturer should not prevent you from fixing it yourself or hiring somebody else that you trust to help you.
The Right to Repair: How Does it Affect Small Businesses?
Shawn Hessinger: How does Right to Repair affect small businesses, particularly electronics repair businesses and things like that? Because there are a lot of them around that repair things for people.
Gay Gordon-Byrne: The problem is, is that repair businesses are basically being run out of business. They are in great decline and have been in decline for at least 20 years, maybe longer as manufacturers stop–like your local TV repair guy, the local stereo guy, the appliance guy, the guy that fixed everything guy. t’s not that they wanted to retire…it’s that they couldn’t buy the information.
They couldn’t get the diagnostic tools, they couldn’t get the part, and they couldn’t get the diagrams. They basically were pushed out of business, and those businesses remained in decline. And we’re losing small businesses at a rate of about 2% a year. We have been for at least the past decade. So, it’s not a pretty picture.
Shawn Hessinger: Why is it particularly timely now? Because I know you mentioned you were in D.C. earlier in the week. Why is it particularly timely at the moment?
Gay Gordon-Byrne: Well, it’s not timely now; it’s been timely for a long time. We’ve just managed to finally elevate the level of concern high enough so that legislatures, such as New York and Colorado, are actually passing bills. We’ve had the attention since 2019 of the Federal Trade Commission, The Department of Justice is interested and The Administration has expressed interest. But really–this goes back to a decade of work.
Right to Repair vs. Right to Resell
Shawn Hessinger: I’ve heard of Right to Resell as well. What’s the difference between Right to Repair and Right to Resell?
Gay Gordon-Byrne: If you can’t fix your products, you can’t resell them. There are two problems here. One, it’s not practical. People don’t buy broken things unless they can repair them easily. Two, if they can’t repair it, the broken thing then becomes valueless. Maybe it has value is in a couple of spare parts, but it basically loses all its value in the process.
Unfortunately, manufacturers have done one even worse where some of the contracts that they’re forcing people to sign say that you can’t resell your device without their permission. And that is a whole, whole other policy nightmare. Totally illegal, by the way. So yeah, Right to Repair, basically, if you can fix your stuff, you can probably resell it. Therefore, you need the right to resell products.
Apple doesn’t subscribe to this practice, and you can read more about it in Small Biz Trend’s article: At Last! Apple Offering Self-Service Repair Kits to Customers to Fix Broken iPhones
Shawn Hessinger: Is it not a concern, not so much for repair companies, but maybe for businesses that were supplied the technology by somebody? What do non-repair businesses have to worry about when they have technology that they want to repair as opposed to, you know, buying new stuff all the time? Because I know there’s a lot of businesses that have computers and networking systems and things like that who don’t want to buy a new one right away. Instead, they’ll go out and hunt around for somebody who knows how to fix the item and pay them for doing it. What do they have to worry about? What do they risk here?
Gay Gordon-Byrne: Right now, they can’t do what they want to do. It’s not a matter of risk. It’s literally they can’t do it because the manufacturers are not letting the repair companies that have for 50 years been providing those services; they’re not letting them buy the information and the parts and the tools or the diagnostics that they have to have in order to be able to offer those services.
So small businesses are just as hurt as large businesses right now in that they’re very limited by the manufacturers to how long they can keep their stuff up and running before the manufacturer just says, “Oh, no, it’s obsolete!” You can’t get this anymore, even though maybe the product will run for another 20 years. But if the manufacturer says it’s obsolete, and they won’t provide any help.
Shawn Hessinger: If it’s not only a legislature or legislative or not primarily a legislative barrier, even if laws change, there’s really nothing that can force a big manufacturer to provide more technology or more things, I suppose, for people to repair their stuff. Is this a legal problem, or could it also be an entrepreneurial problem? I mean, it sounds to me like a great opportunity to manufacture technology that will provide the means to repair because it seems like there would be a demand for that.
Gay Gordon-Byrne: There is a demand, and then there are manufacturers that are responding. But the cost of manufacturing complex electronics really is beyond the means of a small entrepreneur. If they’re able to design something that’s popular in the marketplace and have it produced, yeah, there’s there are opportunities for that. It is very capital-intensive to do that, though.
The reason that we need laws is that we have laws saying that manufacturers cannot monopolize repair. So, they really don’t have a right to say you can’t repair your stuff.
But there’s no real practical requirement in current law that says, “Oh, in addition, Mr. Manufacturer, if you’re going to do business in my state, you must then provide the parts, tools, diagnostics and firmware that’s necessary for consumers to repair their stuff.” And that is the legislative aspect of it. It works for the auto industry, and it will work just as well for consumer products.
Shawn Hessinger: So, the legislation is more than stopping them from trying to prevent it–it is really for requiring them to provide this stuff.
Gay Gordon-Byrne: What they’re doing is illegal, but we need the practical opportunity to buy the things we need to fix our stuff. And that’s what has been missing in law. And that’s why there must be new law as opposed to amending the old law.
This is pretty much an existential threat. We have a lot of stuff in our house with digital parts, and the day is fast coming when none of them will be repairable. Then, we’ll be throwing stuff away and buying new all the time. There will be no escaping it. So, what we really need is this essential legislation.
And for the most part, I’d say 98% of the people that we’ve spoken to agree with us that we should have the option. And that’s what escalation is all about. It’s kind of restoring the options we used to have 20 years ago where we used to be able to fix our own stuff.
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We have so many products that could be repaired if it were easier and more affordable, but instead end up in landfills. I think this is an area that needs more emphasis.
And it is becoming a bigger issue with products that have so much embedded software. The software won’t let you repair the physical product even if you can. It’s a big problem.