‘Right to repair’ law may run into the changing definition of ‘ownership’

If you buy something today, what exactly are you buying? The answer could determine the path of a push to give Americans the “right to repair” possessions they have purchased.

For instance, if you buy an album on Apple Inc.’s iTunes because you would rather “own” it than listen to it on a streaming service like Apple Music or Spotify Technology SA it isn’t the same as buying a physical vinyl record, tape or CD. You’re only buying a digital license to the IP with its own rules as dictated by the contract you enter into with Apple.

That notion of a continuing contract between buyer and seller instead of the purchase of a physical good has become contentious with the rise of the right-to-repair movement. The intention is to give consumers the right to repair a product if it breaks, instead of being forced to buy a new one or pay the original manufacturer to repair it.

President Joe Biden has advocated for a consumer’s right to fix a purchased product as they see fit, and a House bill was introduced in June requiring original equipment manufacturers to supply “for the purposes of diagnosis, maintenance, or repair of such equipment, to independent repair providers or owners of such digital electronic equipment manufactured by or on behalf of, or sold or otherwise supplied by the original equipment manufacturer.”

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A Federal Trade Commission report released in June concluded that “there is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.” The FTC is investigating the matter, as Biden requested in one of the most prominent executive orders issued early in his presidency.

There have been prominent examples of manufacturers selling expensive products and refusing to allow independent repairs on them. One of the most commonly cited examples has been John Deere & Co. because farmers sued the farm-equipment maker for access to the software that ran their tractors and harvesters so they could repair the equipment. Recently, Deere said it supported a customer’s right to ownership and repair and that less than 2% of all repairs required a…