NPR’s Morning Edition discussed the “right to repair” movement among farmers this morning. A Montana farmer turned activist recounted how last summer, as he raced to bring in a hay crop, his John Deere tractor broke down. John Deere’s policies forbade him from taking his tractor to an independent mechanic or trying to fix his own tractor on site to get back to haying; Deere forced him to take the tractor to one of its dealers for service that took a month and cost $5,000.
The problem arises because, as we rely increasingly on precision agriculture and as we use technology to make engines cleaner and more efficient, John Deere and other manufacturers rig their tractors with software that they keep under proprietary wraps. Basically, a farmer spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on a field machine that he doesn’t really own and cannot open up and fix with his own hands.
The same problem has arisen with medical equipment:
COVID-19 emphasises the longstanding refusal by manufacturers to provide information for repairing medical equipment. For years, manufacturers have curtailed the ability of hospitals to independently repair and maintain medical equipment by preventing access to the necessary knowledge, software, tools, and parts.
A solution exists—one that exists in other sectors of our economy. The right to repair is the right of consumers to repair and modify their own consumer electronic devices, such as mobile phones and automobiles. The European Commission announced plans in March, 2020, for new rules for the right to repair that would cover mobile phones, tablets, and laptops by 2021. In the USA, Massachusetts state passed the country’s first Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act in 2012,5 requiring automobile manufacturers to provide the necessary information for anyone to repair their vehicles.
There is an opportunity now for the medical community to ensure that the medical field benefits from access rights to open data that are similar to the rights for consumer electronics and automobiles. In August, 2020, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon introduced the Critical Medical Infrastructure Right-to-Repair Act of 2020, removing barriers to fixing medical equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic that were imposed by manufacturers. This bill requires that manufacturers provide, on fair and reasonable terms, access to information and tools that can be used to diagnose, maintain, or repair medical equipment. The law also allows owners, lessees, and services for medical equipment to repair or maintain crucial medical infrastructure in response to COVID-19.
During these extraordinary times, such legislation for the right to repair not only moves the medical field in a more affordable, efficient, and sustainable direction but also enables life-saving services to continue to be available at times of high stress [Shuhan He, Debbie Lai, and Larone Lee, “The Medical Right to Repair: The Right to Save Lives,” The Lancet, 2021.03.24].
As of April 22, 27 states have introduced right-to-repair legislation, including some bills focusing on agricultural or medical equipment. South Dakota is not among them; the South Dakota Legislature took feeble stabs at right-to-repair legislation with 2014 Senate Bill 136 and 2019 House Bill 1102, but neither bill survived first contact with committee due to opposition from tractor dealers, auto dealers, telecoms, retailers, and the Chamber of Commerce.