Maryland Suddenly Looks Like it Might Break John Deere's Repair Monopoly

The state's right to repair legislation has broad support and a new endorsement from the attorney general.
March 12, 2020, 1:31pm
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Image: Jason Koebler

Maryland has suddenly become the most interesting state considering right to repair. It’s the first state where its attorney general has officially supported legislation that would make it easier for consumers to repair their electronics; the electronics industry, meanwhile, continues to vehemently oppose it.

Both Maryland’s House and Senate had right-to-repair hearings on Wednesday. Both bills have wide support in the legislature and, in an unprecedented move, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Protection advocating for the bills, which specifically took issue with the common refrain from manufacturers that right to repair would hurt device security.

“The Division believes that the manufacturers’ contentions that introducing competition in electronics repair will harm consumers’ privacy and security is without foundation,” said the letter, obtained by Motherboard.

Right to repair legislation would require electronics manufacturers like Apple, Microsoft, John Deere, and dozens of others to sell repair parts to the public and to make repair manuals and tools available to everyone.

“The manufacturers’ arguments against allowing independent repair shops to repair electronics are similar to those previously made by automobile manufacturers who opposed allowing consumers to have their cars repaired at the repair facility of their choice without voiding the vehicle warranty,” it said. The Division said that passing a right-to-repair law for cars led to more repair options and lower costs for consumers. “There is no reason why electronics should be treated differently.”

The Maryland House Economic Matters Committee listened to arguments from sponsors, supporters, and detractors of House Bill 1124 for 90 minutes. Emily Scarr, the Director of U.S. PIRG in Maryland—a group that lobbies for the right-to-repair across the country—said corporate lobbyists have just begun to come out against the bill.

“The opposition that’s been most visible is from John Deere,” Scarr told Motherboard over the phone ahead of the committee hearing. “We’ve heard rumors that they’ve cut a deal with the American Farm Bureau to keep the Farm Bureau from lobbying in support of the bill.”

And it’s not just John Deere. “Video game manufacturers have shown up at a couple of delegate offices concerned about piracy, which we don’t think is founded,” Scarr said.

Representatives from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) did speak at the meeting. “This is not just a screen fixing bill,” Katherine Gunter of the ESA said during the meeting. “This is the mandate of intellectual property to unauthorized repair shops...our companies take it upon themselves to get their repairs fixed as quickly and affordably as possible.”

Gunter and the ESA claimed that House Bill 1124 would make video game console manufacturers vulnerable to piracy and intellectual property theft. Piracy exists independent of the right-to-repair and it’s unclear how allowing people to fix their own broken consoles would lead to more of it. What was clear, however, was the video game industry’s feelings on allowing customers to repair their own stuff. “I just wanted to emphasize that, as an industry, we really oppose the right-to-repair,” Gunter said.

Despite the opposition, Scarr is optimistic about the bills. “I’ve had legislators approaching us. This is not a bill we brought to them,” she said. “For a couple of years now, we’ve had Republican and Democratic legislators contacting us saying their constituents want them to put this bill in.”

According to Scarr, Maryland is uniquely ready for a right-to-repair bill. “We’re a tech savvy place,” she said. “We’re near D.C., we have lots of folks who work in the tech industry. We also have a large farming community and people care deeply about their farmers, so they don’t want their farmers to be price gouged or ripped off.”

“As somebody that’s sitting here with a cracked iPhone screen, and I’ve got into Apple, they literally won’t fix it,” Maryland State Delegate Brian Crosby said during the meeting. “That’s a valid concern that people are bringing up. And I only know that because I’m sitting here with it.”

The committee meetings are just one step on a long road to Maryland passing a right-to-repair law, and dozens of other states are also considering similar bills. The legislation needs to go through more committees and floor votes before consumers in Maryland can legally repair their own stuff. “We don’t know how strong the opposition will be nor how strong the support will be,” Scarr said. “I’ve had people who I don’t know texting me all morning saying they’re coming because they care about this issue. That’s something I’m not used to.”

This article originally appeared on VICE US.