There are big "no trespassing" signs affixed to most of our electronics.
If you own a gaming console, laptop, or computer, it's likely you've seen one of these warnings in the form of a sticker placed over a screw or a seam: "Warranty void if removed."
In addition, big manufacturers such as Sony, Microsoft, and Apple explicitly note or imply in their official agreements that their year-long manufacturer warranties—which entitle you to a replacement or repair if your device is defective—are void if consumers attempt to repair their gadgets or take them to a third party repair professional.
What almost no one knows is that these stickers and clauses are illegal under a federal law passed in 1975 called the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act.
To be clear, federal law says you can open your electronics without voiding the warranty, regardless of what the language of that warranty says.
This counterintuitive fact has far-reaching implications as manufacturers have stepped up their attempts to monopolize the device repair market.
The Xbox One has a sticker that, if broken or removed, implies to Microsoft that a third party has opened the device. The Playstation 4 has various stickers that must be broken to open the device that explicitly state that tampering with them invalidates the warranty. iPhones and MacBooks don't have a warranty-voiding sticker, but Apple Geniuses are trained to look for clues that would tip the company off to the fact that the device has been opened. Apple has also been known to refuse service on devices that have been opened.** Each of those company's warranty agreements advise against or forbid* opening the device.
The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act
These warranty agreements and stickers exist almost entirely to help manufacturers maintain a monopoly on repairing the devices that they sell us—for example, most people won't attempt the relatively simple process of replacing a broken iPhone screen (which is not covered by warranty) if they believe that in doing so, Apple will refuse to replace the headphone jack if it malfunctions (which is covered by warranty).
"Manufacturers threaten to do things they cannot do legally but 99.9 percent of consumers have no idea of their actual rights"
However, warranty conditions that forbid consumers from opening or repairing their devices are illegal under a provision of the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act that forbids "tying," meaning the conditions of the warranty "tie" the consumer to using a specific service or specific types of parts, experts told Motherboard.
"Apple and others have crafty attorneys that know darned well that Magnuson-Moss exists as do anti-trust laws against 'tying agreements.' The contracts are very clever and appear to be within the law—but are anything but in practice," Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, a group lobbying for right to repair laws around the country, told me. "Manufacturers threaten to do things they cannot do legally but 99.9 percent of consumers have no idea of their actual rights."
The MMWA is a relatively obscure statute that is most famous for creating "lemon law" for cars. If you've ever heard about it before, it's probably in the context of car warranties: a warranty cannot be voided simply because someone uses aftermarket parts in their device or car.
But the law applies to all consumer devices that cost more than $15, including electronics. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission issued a new guidance that explains the law's bans on the types of warranties that are common in consumer electronics.
"Generally, the MMWA prohibits warrantors from conditioning warranties on the consumer's use of a replacement product or repair service identified by brand or name," the FTC wrote. This means that there can be no such thing as an "unauthorized" repair or an "unauthorized" replacement part.
The statute itself states "for example, a provision in the warranty such as, 'use only an authorized ABC dealer' or 'use only ABC replacement parts,' is prohibited where the service or parts are not provided free of charge pursuant to the warranty."
"If you replaced the screen yourself with an appropriate one, then they could not claim that voided the warranty"
The car warranty is a good way to visualize the way the MMWA works. If you replace your Honda transmission with a used one you bought off your neighbor or one manufactured by a third party, Honda can't refuse to replace the engine if it blows while under warranty, so long as the aftermarket transmission didn't directly cause the engine to fail.
The burden is on the manufacturer—not the consumer—to prove that the aftermarket part caused the failure in the other part of the car. With a smartphone, this means that if you do a successful repair on one part of the phone, the manufacturer can't refuse to replace another part of it if it breaks down the line. For example, if you crack the screen (not covered by warranty), replace it, and, months later, the charging port malfunctions, Apple must prove that your screen repair somehow contributed to the charging port failure. (Of course, manufacturers aren't required to fix things that you break—they just can't stop you from fixing it yourself or having someone else fix it.)
Of course, without government intervention, much of this is theoretical. Manufacturers can get away with their warranty policies because no one ever challenges them on it—it's much easier to buy a new phone than spend months in court over a couple hundred bucks.
"If you replaced the screen yourself with an appropriate one, then they could not claim that voided the warranty," Steve Lehto, a lemon law attorney in Michigan, told me. "However, it would be something too costly to litigate and this is why pro-consumer laws, which allow for the recovery of attorney fees and court costs in cases like this, are so important."
The FTC has shown that it's willing to use MMWA to go after manufacturers for misleading warranties, though I was unable to find an example of the FTC enforcing it against an electronics company. In the agreement for cars in BMW's MINI division, the company noted that "regular maintenance of your vehicle … performed by your MINI dealer" was a condition of the car's warranty. Last year, the FTC issued a formal complaint against BMW under the MMWA and eventually settled with the company. Under the terms of the settlement, BMW is expressly forbidden "from representing that, to ensure a vehicle's safe operation or maintain its value, owners must have routine maintenance performed only by MINI dealers or MINI centers" and "must provide affected MINI owners with information about their right to use third-party parts and service without voiding warranty coverage."
"The manufacturers know that the litigation costs would be prohibitive in any given single case"
Representatives for Apple, Microsoft, and Sony's Playstation division did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment. To be clear, not every manufacturer puts this type of language in their warranty agreements (look up the warranty information for your devices if you're interested), but such language is also found in medical equipment and other electronics.
Frank Dorman, a spokesperson for the FTC, told me that warranty-voiding stickers appear on their face to be a violation of the MMWA.
"The stickers could be deceptive by implying consumers can't use parts the warrantor doesn't pre-approve, which violates the anti-tying provisions of MMWA," Dorman told me.
The FTC's interpretation of the MMWA "makes clear that the mere use of an aftermarket (or recycled) component is not alone a sufficient justification for warranty denial."
Warranties and the Right to Repair
So why do manufacturers continue to put these stickers inside their devices and this language in their agreements? These warranty agreements and stickers need to be looked at in the wider context of the repair industry—most electronics warranties are short (either 90 days or a year), and most electronics don't malfunction within their warranty period. Most devices that need to be repaired are either already out of warranty or have a user-caused problem such as a crack on the screen or water damage, which are not covered by warranties. But stickers and these agreements create the illusion that electronics are mysterious black boxes that shouldn't be opened by anyone who isn't authorized to by the manufacturer.
Electronics manufacturers (and auto manufacturers) have been working to secure a monopoly on repairing their own products using a variety of means. They ask the Library of Congress to make certain types of repair illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. At the state level, they lobby against fair repair bills that would require them to sell replacement parts to consumers and repair shops. They ask the Department of Homeland Security to raid independent repair shops to confiscate "counterfeit" parts (many of which are not proprietary) that are imported from China. They use non-standard screws to keep people out of their products. They write deceptive warranty agreements and put threatening stickers on their products.
The evidence suggests that these stickers and agreements have the desired effect of making consumers afraid to open their electronics. There are dozens of frantic forum posts and Yahoo Answers questions from people who opened their devices and are worried they voided their warranties. There are people who sell replacement warranty stickers, and tutorials about complex methods of removing them without breaking them. A YouTube video about building a specialized knife to remove these stickers has more than 100,000 views.
Lehto says that the manufacturers are unlikely to change warranty language on their own, and it's unlikely anyone is going to bring a suit against a major company over a device that costs a few hundred dollars.
"The manufacturers know that the litigation costs would be prohibitive in any given single case," he said. "But it might be ripe for a class action if there are legitimate problems being denied for warranty coverage by someone. That might be where this is headed someday."
*Microsoft: "Microsoft is not responsible and this warranty does not apply if Your Xbox One or Accessory is … opened, modified, or tampered with (including, for example, any attempt to defeat any Xbox One or Accessory technical limitation, security, or anti-piracy mechanism, etc.), or its serial number is altered or removed … [or is] repaired by anyone other than Microsoft," the Xbox One warranty states.
Sony: Sony notes, in all caps, that the Playstation 4 warranty "DOES NOT APPLY IF THIS PRODUCT … IS MODIFIED OR TAMPERED WITH … OR HAS HAD THE WARRANTY SEAL ON THE PS4™ SYSTEM ALTERED, DEFACED, OR REMOVED."
Apple: Apple's iPhone warranty is less explicit, but has this message in bold: "Important: Do not open the Apple Product. Opening the Apple Product may cause damage that is not covered by this Warranty. Only Apple or an AASP should perform service on this Apple Product." Apple is also known to refuse to service phones that have been opened by their owners or by third party repair professionals.
**Lehto tells me that Apple's iPhone warranty is a very clever piece of legal writing.
"'May' and 'should' mean they recommend it but are not forcing a particular behavior," he told me. "If they were to deny warranty coverage because someone opened the phone or did previous work, the question then becomes: What is the basis of their denial? Is it that the phone was opened or that when opened, someone tampered with the phone in a way that cause a defect or malfunction? If the latter, they are good."
So Apple's specific warranty language may fall within the bounds of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, but there have been cases where Apple has refused to work on a device (even for a fee) because it had been opened. The FTC notes that the act is violated "if its warranty led a reasonable consumer exercising due care to believe that the warranty conditioned coverage 'on the consumer's use of an article or service identified by brand, trade or corporate name" and in a blog post says that "warranty language that implies to a consumer that warranty coverage is conditioned on the use of select parts or service is deceptive."