No, the Digital Fair Repair Act will not cause companies to leave Minnesota

At least, I don’t think so.

You may have heard about Minnesota’s new law, the Digital Fair Repair Act, signed into law May 24, 2023. This law (which takes effect July 1, 2024) requires that most OEMs provide owners (and independent repair shops) with “documentation, parts, and tools” to fix our stuff. The documentation part is particularly interesting because it requires the OEM to provide the documentation “at no charge” (unless you specifically want a paper copy).

What’s this new law, Veronica?

iFixit did an excellent write-up about it, and yesterday I put out a video (PeerTube/YouTube) about my excitement and skepticism. Here are the important bits of the new law:

For digital electronic equipment and parts for the equipment sold or used in Minnesota, an original equipment manufacturer must make available to any independent repair provider or to the owner of digital electronic equipment manufactured by or on behalf of, or sold by, the original equipment manufacturer, on fair and reasonable terms, documentation, parts, and tools, inclusive of any updates to information or embedded software, for diagnostic, maintenance, or repair purposes. Nothing in this section requires an original equipment manufacturer to make available a part, tools, or documentation if it is no longer available to the original equipment manufacturer.

Minnesota SF2744 (Sec. 11, [325E.72], Subd. 3.a)

And, the bits defining documentation requirements:

[“Fair and reasonable terms” means, with respect to] documentation offered by an original equipment manufacturer: that the documentation is made available by the original equipment manufacturer at no charge, except that when the documentation is requested in physical printed form, a charge may be included for the reasonable actual costs of preparing and sending the copy.

Minnesota SF2744 (Sec. 11, [325E.72], Subd. 2.h3)

As a repair enthusiast in Minnesota, I’m thrilled. Sure, there are carveouts, including medical devices, farm equipment, game consoles, and automobiles. And those carveouts, to use a technical term, suck. But as a Minnesotan with a soldering iron and nothing to lose, I’m pretty pumped.

And this benefits the planet, because if the companies making our devices have to make the documentation freely available, it’s easy to imagine we’re all (regardless of location) going to get great new service manuals thanks to this law.

So, surely Apple/Google/etc will leave Minnesota, right?

I really don’t think so. A lot of my YouTube commenters seem to think that’s what’s going to happen, but I disagree for a few reasons.

(Full disclosure, I’m not a policy analyst with any large tech company, nor am I a lawyer, I’m just a mom with an oscilloscope whose words you’re reading.)

First of all, they have contracts with businesses here, and the law doesn’t allow them to bail on contracts just because they want to pick up their ball and go home.

Beyond that, I don’t think they’d have to leave the state in order to water down what they’re going to provide. There will certainly be legal challenges and right-to-repair is not nearly as well funded as big tech. The cynic in me says that we’ll be seeing court cases arguing that a motherboard is a “trade secret”- things like that. Who knows what other tomfoolery we’ll see from big tech’s legal teams?

Getting past the “I don’t wanna” defense – let’s just assume they fail in the courts (for the sake of argument) – surely they’d leave the state before uploading a service manual? I don’t think so. The law says that whatever they’re providing (at least as far as service manuals go) to their own “authorized repair providers” is what they have to provide to the rest of us. Things like service manuals, technical details (excluding “trade secrets”, see above), that sort of thing. I’m betting it’s not a dealbreaker to make that documentation public, because it’s just not super exciting to most of us. Which gets to the heart of why I wrote this:

Most folks still won’t want to repair their own stuff.

Don’t get me wrong- a lot of people want their electronics to be repairable. But that isn’t the same thing as saying they want to repair it themselves.

Providing a service manual helps the bold amongst us who try to fix our stuff, sure. But mostly, in my opinion at least, it’s going to help repair shops. Small businesses that want to help a customer fix a computer. Used computer stores that want to help keep devices out of landfill.

Nothing about this new law says that “consumers are allowed to repair their stuff and maintain a warranty“. At the end of the day, warranties are a big reason folks buy a new device. They want the comfort of support, and the convenience of being able to take it back to the store to get it fixed.

Right to repair doesn’t change that consumer habit. Not overnight, at least.

Besides, this bill doesn’t change all that much.

It’s important to note that there’s a ton of carveouts:

  • Farm equipment
  • Video game consoles
  • Specialized cybersecurity tools
  • Motor vehicles
  • Medical devices
  • “Trade secrets”
  • Anything that overrides “antitheft security measures”

I hinted at this in my video, but I’m betting we’re going to see a lot of challenges based on the above.

Beyond that though, the bill also doesn’t require manufacturers to:

  • Open source their hardware or software
  • Disclose their fabrication practices
  • Support devices indefinitely
  • Sell parts long after discontinuing a product

It’s a start. Not a finish. Speaking of continuing the work…

Minnesota will not be the last state to pass a right-to-repair bill.

This bill expands on what New York State already did with their watered down right-to-repair bill. And surely other states will follow in our footsteps.

While hypothetically big OEMs could back out of Minnesota, as the train keeps moving they won’t back out of everywhere. Other states and countries will inevitably follow suit here.

It’s naive to argue that everyone wants to repair their stuff. But it’s not naive to argue that most folks want repairable stuff.

“I don’t want randos working on pacemakers though, Veronica”

Oh yeah, that’s another comment I’m seeing. I wouldn’t worry about it – if someone is foolish enough to try repairing a pacemaker without proper, professional training, I doubt the service manual makes a difference in the outcome! Eeek!

Thanks for reading!

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