Right to repair is back in the news because Apple is opposing a Nebraska bill that would require electronics companies like Apple to produce repair manuals and sell replacement parts.
Apple only got involved because the bill—one of eight nationwide, according to Motherboard—threatens its software licenses. We saw a similar battle between farmers and John Deere, which asserted that ownership of John Deere equipment “does not include the right to copy, modify or distribute software that is embedded in that equipment.”
This all stems back to the 1980s when the CEO of MicroPro International, Seymour Rubenstein, developed the licensing agreement for WordStar, the premier word processor of the era. It was based on the licensing agreements used by software vendors for mainframe and minicomputers, which have evolved into the fully legal shrink-wrap licensing agreements we know today.
Rubenstein saw this as the future of all commerce, with even books being licensed and not sold. In his perfect world, you’d never buy (or own) anything. Everything would be a rental agreement and you could never resell anything.
I can assure you that every car manufacturer, as well as the entire spate of Internet of Things makers, is considering the idea. Why would Samsung, for example, want to license its IoT refrigerator rather than sell it to you? Many reasons: To prevent you from using anything other than an official Samsung repair service. To prevent you from reselling the device. To prevent you from bad-mouthing the product.
Yes, a lot of licensing agreements do not allow criticism of the product. License holders have yet to go the mat over customer complaints, but it could—and will—happen someday.
There is a lot you can put in these agreements. The courts have upheld them and that’s the real problem.
Do you want the right to fix and repair? How about fixing and repairing bad code? How do you accomplish that? When you boil it all down, much of the fixing needs to be done at the software level. That means releasing the source code. The big software companies, as well as Apple and others, purposely sketched the Digital Millennium Copyright Act with that in mind. They were afraid the courts would make companies show their code; the DMCA would be the only law that prevents people from stealing the code after that happens. Yet that’s the same DMCA used to prevent farmers from fixing their tractors.
Computer enthusiasts must realize that this is not about Apple. It’s about the limitations created by licensing. Apple knows the ropes, understands the downside to the company, and it’s fighting to stop these laws in Nebraska and elsewhere. Naturally.
Let’s see if the long-established licensing ploy finally gets tossed for good. Because the future of everything is at stake.