New York Legislators Seeking A ‘Right To Repair’ Law For Electronic Devices

Well, this is (potentially) good news. New York is going forward with the first “right to repair” bill in the nation, as pointed out on Twitter by Amanda Levendowski. The bill will allow constituents to bypass manufacturer-authorized dealers/repair centers and use smaller (and cheaper) repair outlets. Or, if neither seems within the price range, they’re more than welcome to perform these repairs — using previously-hidden manufacturer specs and instructions — themselves.

Perhaps the best thing about the bill (if it passes with as few loopholes as possible) is that it will eliminate the sort of ridiculousness that has been the end result of this tight grip on repair “permission.” Like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raiding repair shops for using aftermarket products. Or teens being sued by multi-billion dollar companies for doing the same. Or local governments requiring unrelated licenses to be obtained before a person can start offering repairs.

Here’s what’s being authorized before the exceptions kick in. (ALL CAPS in the original.)

MANUFACTURERS OF DIGITAL ELECTRONIC PARTS AND MACHINES SOLD OR USED IN THE STATE OF NEW YORK SHALL:

I. MAKE AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE BY INDEPENDENT REPAIR FACILITIES OR OTHER OWNERS OF PRODUCTS MANUFACTURED BY SUCH MANUFACTURER DIAGNOSTIC AND REPAIR INFORMATION, INCLUDING REPAIR TECHNICAL UPDATES, UPDATES AND CORRECTIONS TO FIRMWARE, AND RELATED DOCUMENTATION, IN THE SAME MANNER SUCH MANUFACTURER MAKES AVAILABLE TO ITS AUTHORIZED REPAIR CHANNEL. EACH MANUFACTURER SHALL PROVIDE ACCESS TO SUCH MANUFACTURER’S DIAGNOSTIC AND REPAIR INFORMATION SYSTEM FOR PURCHASE BY OWNERS AND INDEPENDENT REPAIR FACILITIES UPON FAIR AND REASONABLE TERMS; AND

II. MAKE AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE BY THE PRODUCT OWNER, OR THE AUTHORIZED AGENT OF THE OWNER, SUCH SERVICE PARTS, INCLUSIVE OF ANY UPDATES TO THE FIRMWARE OF THE PARTS, FOR PURCHASE UPON FAIR AND REASONABLE TERMS…

EACH MANUFACTURER OF DIGITAL ELECTRONIC PRODUCTS SOLD OR USED IN THE STATE OF NEW YORK SHALL MAKE AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE BY OWNERS AND INDEPENDENT REPAIR FACILITIES ALL DIAGNOSTIC REPAIR TOOLS INCORPORATING THE SAME DIAGNOSTIC, REPAIR AND REMOTE COMMUNICATIONS CAPABILITIES THAT SUCH MANUFACTURER MAKES AVAILABLE TO ITS OWN REPAIR OR ENGINEERING STAFF OR ANY AUTHORIZED REPAIR CHANNELS. EACH MANUFACTURER SHALL OFFER SUCH TOOLS FOR SALE TO OWNERS AND TO INDEPENDENT REPAIR FACILITIES UPON FAIR AND REASONABLE TERMS.

That’s the good part. But there are potential loopholes in the bill already, including a major exception for one of the most tightlipped industries: auto manufacturers.

NOTHING IN THIS SECTION SHALL APPLY TO MOTOR VEHICLE MANUFACTURERS OR MOTOR VEHICLE DEALERS AS DEFINED IN THIS SECTION.

If any industry needs to be covered under a “right to repair,” it’s the auto industry, which has continually abused intellectual property laws to keep the general public from diagnosing their own vehicles in order to perform their own repairs.

There’s other potential bad news in there as well.

NOTHING IN THIS SECTION SHALL BE CONSTRUED TO REQUIRE A MANUFACTURER TO DIVULGE A TRADE SECRET.

Yeah. Guess what’s going to start being declared “trade secrets?” Probably almost everything the bill orders manufacturers to make available to the public. Even if this bill passes, there’s going to be a ton of litigation over what does and does not define a “trade secret.” In the meantime, the public will be no better off than they were before the bill’s passage.

And there’s this exception, which would seem to pick up whatever slack “trade secrets” can’t.

NOTHING IN THIS SECTION SHALL BE CONSTRUED TO REQUIRE MANUFACTURERS OR AUTHORIZED REPAIR PROVIDERS TO PROVIDE AN OWNER OR INDEPENDENT REPAIR PROVIDER ACCESS TO NON-DIAGNOSTIC AND REPAIR INFORMATION PROVIDED BY A MANUFACTURER TO AN AUTHORIZED REPAIR PROVIDER PURSUANT TO THE TERMS OF AN AUTHORIZING AGREEMENT.

“Non-diagnostic” could become the new “diagnostic.” And the use of the word “and” seems to make “repair information” off-limits if any agreements are already in place with authorized dealers and repair shops.

There’s also a good chance the bill’s “fair and reasonable terms” will be construed as permission to price independent repair shops and the general public out of the market. Legislators obviously can’t set base prices (or even determine a fair market price — that information is kept under wraps as well), so the suggestion of a “fair” price is open to advantageous interpretation. There’s an attempt to set some limits in the bill’s definitions, with the most significant one being “THE ABILITY OF AFTERMARKET TECHNICIANS OR SHOPS TO AFFORD THE INFORMATION,” but that, again, is going to generate a lot of friction (possibly of the litigious variety) when manfacturers and the rest of the public repeatedly fail to agree on the definition of “affordable.”

Still, it’s more than most governments are willing to attempt. Massachusetts passed one in 2013 — one that targeted auto manufacturers and dealers. It met with the usual resistance from the auto industry (both ends) but gathered 86% of the public’s votes, clearly signaling unhappiness with the automakers’ closed systems. A federal “right to repair” law has been mooted several times, but has never gained significant traction.

If this bill is going to succeed as a law, legislators need to do some loophole stitching pre-passage, and regulators will need to keep a very close eye on reticent manufacturers after it becomes law.

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