May 20, 2009 | By Fred von Lohmann

Right-to-Repair Law Proposed ... for Cars

It's not often that you get former presidential candidates from the Green Party and the Libertarian Party to agree on legislation, but Bob Barr and Ralph Nader have done just that -- jointly supporting the Right-To-Repair Act of 2009 (H.R. 2057):

This aptly named bill would allow independent repair shops to compete for the business now guaranteed only to dealer-controlled establishments. This is important because car manufacturers now severely limit the number of repair shops that are allowed to have the tools, diagnostic codes and updated repair information essential to being able to repair late-model cars (which are heavily dependent on computers for performance and repair).

By thus unfairly limiting the universe of repair shops able to diagnose and repair late-model cars to only those repair shops that are connected with their dealers, the manufacturers dramatically limit consumer choice and significantly increase the costs to those car owners (by some 34 percent, according to a study preformed for the Automotive After Market Industry Association by Lang Research).

We're all for promoting competition and consumer choice. But this bill points to a much bigger consumer issue. The problem that this law attempts to fix is the direct result of the use of computers in cars, accompanied by proprietary diagnostic tools and "lock-out codes." Sound familiar? It should, as it's the very sort of thing that can also make it difficult to repair computer systems, sell replacement garage door openers, and refill printer toner cartridges. One underlying legal problem here is the DMCA, which prohibits bypassing or circumventing "technological protection measures."

So while the Right-to-Repair Act of 2009 is legislation that deserves our support, it doesn't help those who repair things other than cars. For example, it won't help Joe Montero, who treks to the Copyright Office every three years to argue for a DMCA exemption to permit the repair and replacement of obsolete and malfunctioning software "dongles," those little hardware devices purportedly intended to prevent software piracy, but which often end up frustrating perfectly legitimate customers.

And the issue goes beyond the importance of being able to get independent repair and maintenance services. The use of technological "locks" against tinkerers also threatens "user innovation" -- the kinds of innovation that traditionally have come from independent tinkerers -- which has increasingly been recognized as an important part of economic growth and technological improvement. MIT Professor Eric Von Hippel has been at the forefront of this research, and has been hosting a fascinating workshop this week entitled "Intellectual Property Law and Open & User Innovation" (being live-blogged by Georgetown Prof. Rebecca Tushnet).

In short, thanks to the DMCA, we need a Right-To-Repair Act not just for cars, but increasingly for all the things we own.


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