Is right to repair right for Washington?

Jan 10, 2024

House Bill 1933 would establish “right to repair” rules in Washington, a movement that has picked up and taken effect in a few other states across the U.S. The bill would establish requirements of manufacturers of electronic equipment, and notably agricultural equipment, to provide parts, tools, and documentation in the use of maintenance and repair to any independent repair provider. The bill outlines conditions requiring them to be made available at cost and without other impediments to give independent repair stores a disadvantage. Exemptions to these requirements include motor vehicles, public safety equipment, medical devices (besides power wheelchairs), utility equipment, and video game consoles.

The aim of the bill is to allow small businesses and consumers who own complicated electronics or equipment to repair their purchased goods themselves, or equip independent repair stores to do the task. Some device manufacturers use proprietary tools and methods to create their products without giving consumers or unaffiliated repair stores access to these tools, parts, or repair methods. Proponents of right to repair argue that requiring these companies to provide documentation and access to tools or components allows for a fairer marketplace to small businesses repair shops and individual consumers who want to save on costly repairs. In many rural areas, official repair stores for equipment aren’t available, making it difficult for consumers to repair their equipment in a cost-efficient manner.

On the other hand, right to repair laws offer their share of problems as well. Allowing for access to specialized tools, components, and documentation can cause trade secrets and intellectual property from these companies to be widely available, causing costs of research and development to be borne by one company with the results available to all. The bill tries to account for this, saying that no trade secrets should be divulged unless it directly affects the repair. While this attempted safeguard is appreciated, the scope of “repairs” to many electronics means that some repair documentation will necessarily require trade secrets and other proprietary technology to be made public. This not only creates disincentives for companies to invest in research and development, but also can create many security risks for essential services of devices. This reality could be why there are so many listed exemptions, including medical equipment and automotive vehicles.

A potential solution that seeks to balance the need for wider repair access while maintaining more protections for trade secrets and security would be to limit the scope of repairs and maintenance that fall under the bill. Taking a modular approach and restricting tools, service parts, and documentation requirements to replacing individual components on a case-by-case basis could help introduce wider access for repair stores and individuals without companies losing their R&D investments.

One last consideration is the terminology of “right” to repair. The right to repair something may exist insofar as your own ability can repair something you’ve rightfully purchased, but that right does not naturally extend to requiring others to provide resources, tools, or instructions in that endeavor. When government laws “create” rights, it is another way of imposing a burden on others and mandating their action or cooperation. A true, natural right is one that can be exercised without imposition on others. Governments can affirm rights, but this only extends to protecting an individual’s right from being interfered with, rather than extending a mandate on others to give you something which the government has labelled a “right.”

When it comes to introducing new requirements on businesses, a cautious, limited scope is preferred to reduce potential costs and harms that end up hurting businesses and consumers alike in the long term. This bill has potential to help give consumers more choices but might pave the way for yet another load on businesses.

Sign up for the WPC Newsletter