Briefing

Why it's getting easier to fix your John Deere tractor

The "right to repair" movement, explained

Is your John Deere tractor broken down? Fix it yourself.

Under a new agreement with the American Farm Bureau Federation, the company will allow farmers to mend their own machines instead of requiring them to use officially authorized parts or service facilities. The agreement is a victory for the "grassroots right-to-repair movement that has been putting pressure on manufacturers to allow customers and independent repair shops to fix their devices," the BBC reports. It's not just an issue in agriculture: Companies like Tesla and Apple have tangled with activists who want to fix their broken stuff. What is the "right to repair" (RTR) movement? Here's everything you need to know: 

What is the "right to repair" movement?

"It's simple. You bought it, you should own it. Period," The Repair Association, an RTR advocacy group, says on its website. It's slightly more complicated than that. RTR advocates acknowledge that today's machines — filled with chips and software that require a specialist's knowledge to fix or modify — are much more complicated than they used to be. But they also argue that big companies restrict information about how to fix their products, forcing customers to either take broken stuff to expensive "authorized" repair shops or just give up and go buy a new version entirely. (This apparently happens quite often with laptops, smartphones, and even kitchen appliances.) The RTR movement wants those companies to make repair manuals, parts, and tools more widely available, and even to design products more simply so that consumers can fix their stuff more easily.

What is the benefit of RTR?

"There is the hope that with increased repairability, the world will see less e-waste," Wirecutter reports. It takes more than 23 million tons of raw material just to make all the smartphones that Americans buy each year, the Public Institute Research Group (PIRG) argues: "Continuing to extract, produce and consume electronics at this rate is simply not sustainable." Making it easier for people to repair their own stuff — and passing laws that require companies to let that happen — is "good for the planet."

Why do companies resist the "right to repair"?

Intellectual property is a big reason. The New York Times reports some companies say that "the computer code that drives the device remains the property of the manufacturer, not the consumer," so they're not eager to let their customers poke around in the device software and discover important trade secrets in the process. Before the new John Deere agreement, for example, tractor owners were prohibited from even looking at the software code used to operate the machines. The consequence? A possible breach-of-contract lawsuit. Tesla in 2020 urged its customers to vote against a Massachusetts RTR measure, arguing "it potentially jeopardizes vehicle and data security." In the face of public pressure, though, some notable holdouts are backing down, if only a bit. In November 2021, Apple — seen as one of the biggest opponents of RTR — announced a new "self-service repair program" that includes repair manuals and access to parts. 

What states have "right to repair" laws?

"Currently only two states — New York and Colorado — have active right-to-repair laws, the latter of which is hyper-specific and only relates to powered wheelchairs," Gizmodo reports. That understates the breadth of the movement. In recent years, New York points out, 41 states have at least contemplated some sort of RTR legislation. And RTR advocates have some backing at the federal level: In 2021, President Biden signed a series of anti-monopoly executive orders that included an initiative to "guarantee farmers and motorists the right to repair their own vehicles without voiding warranty protections," Politico reports. The president sold the move as a victory for capitalism: "Denying the right to repair raises prices for consumers, means independent repair shops can't compete for your business," Biden said in February 2022. Those state and federal actions may have compelled Apple and John Deere to make accommodations with the movement. 

What's next?

There's movement on a number of fronts. The RTR movement is international: The European Union in 2022 gave initial approval to "right to repair" legislation, though the final shape of the regulations is emerging more slowly than advocates prefer. And even where laws have been passed and agreements signed, RTR advocates want more. The new New York law, for example, goes into effect on July 1 — but with amendments that exclude home appliances, cars, and medical devices from RTR requirements. Advocates will probably push to expand the law, PIRG's Nathan Proctor told Bloomberg Law. The new regulation "kind of raises the floor, and then I think there's still a question on what the ceiling is for this topic."

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