Editorial: The ‘right to repair’ is essential

Published: 04-16-2023 6:22 AM

One does not have to read the Valley News obituary columns for many days before encountering some such encomium as “he could fix anything,” or “he was never happier than in the presence of a piece of equipment that needed repair.” Indeed, that kind of “can-do” competence is an outstanding New England characteristic with a long agricultural lineage that combines mechanical aptitude, legendary frugality and rural independence.

But as time marches on, the opportunities to fix things are increasingly circumscribed. Modern equipment manufacturers maintain tight control over the parts, diagnostic tools and computer codes that are now essential to the task at hand. That, in turn, holds the owners of the equipment hostage to expensive manufacturer-authorized repairs rather than being able to rely on their own abilities or independent shops.

Legislation now pending in the Vermont House seeks to guarantee what has become known throughout the country as the “right to repair.” It covers agricultural and forestry equipment (not personal electronic devices, in case you are wondering whether you need to scrap your cell phone if it just needs a new battery). It would require manufacturers to make available to equipment owners and independent repair shops the needed parts, tools and documentation on financial terms deemed fair to both parties.

There’s a compelling case that such legislation is needed in a state where agriculture and logging still are important contributors to the economy. Zach Emerson, a logger based in Groton, argued in legislative testimony last month that “anyone that spends the kind of money that we have to spend on this equipment should have access to” the means to fix it. Without that, he told VtDigger, he has to transport his heavy equipment to a dealership or pay a certified technician to travel to his work site to perform repairs, at a cost of up to $190 an hour (more than twice what a local mechanic charges). And both logging and farming are time sensitive and weather dependent, which places a premium on having equipment available when conditions are favorable.

Not surprisingly, this legislative initiative has elicited a furious lobbying response from national trade groups for equipment manufacturers. Rep. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury, who introduced the bill, said she and other lawmakers working on it were deluged by a flood of opposition. But she drew the right conclusion: “It just says to me that we’re on to something really important. If folks are fighting, spending so much money, to prevent access to these tools and materials, there’s probably a lot at stake here.” Indeed, there is a David and Goliath quality to this fight, as giant equipment manufacturers mobilize to crush tiny Vermont’s efforts.

But there is a bigger picture, too. Vermont is but one of many states pursuing such legislation (similar bills had been filed in 14 other states as of January), and Congress also has before it a version called the Fair Repair Act. The equipment manufacturers probably calculate that whatever money is spent opposing legislative efforts pales in comparison with the highly lucrative monopoly they now enjoy.

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This is not to say, however, that all of the equipment manufacturers’ concerns are spurious. Potential infringement of intellectual property rights cannot be lightly dismissed, although the Vermont bill does contain a narrowly drawn exemption for trade secrets. And a worst case scenario for the manufacturers would be having to comply with a state-by-state patchwork of different laws with different requirements (a situation that might be challenged as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause). Those complexities are perhaps the reason that the House Agriculture Committee sent the bill along to the Commerce and Economic Development Committee for review without taking a vote.

A hopeful note is that at the end of last month a bipartisan group of 28 state attorneys general, including Vermont’s, signed a letter urging Congress to pass “expansive Right-to-Repair legislation targeted at automobiles, agricultural equipment, and digital electronic equipment to protect our consumers and farmers across the nation.”

It may well be that this issue is best resolved by Congress. But given how often that body is stalemated, we hope that Vermont will keep pushing to vindicate a venerable tradition of farmers and loggers repairing the repairable themselves.