California’s Senate Bill 244, known as the Right to Repair Act, made headlines last week when Apple publicly expressed its support for it in a letter to the chief sponsor of the proposed legislation, State Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman.
So what exactly does this bill stipulate, and why did Apple throw its weight behind it?
The language of the bill itself is, as bills go, pretty simple. In a nutshell, it calls for manufacturers of electronic equipment and appliances to make available “on fair and reasonable terms” to individuals and independent repair shops the same parts, tools, and documentation that they make available to their authorized repairers.
The law, should it come into force, will apply for different durations depending on the cost of the item. Things with a wholesale price less than US $50 are exempt, but items with wholesale prices between $50 and $99.99 will fall under this law for three years from the time the last such product was manufactured. Items with wholesale prices of $100 or more will fall under this law for seven years from the date of final manufacture. That is, the interval of application of the law is based purely on the wholesale price of the product and not tied to its warranty period.
If the bill passes, it means that soon there may be far more information and software relevant to electronics and appliance repair available online
The bill covers appliances, like refrigerators and clothes dryers, and most electronic gizmos—including televisions, radios, audio and video recorders and playback equipment, and computers. There are carve-outs, though, for video-game consoles and alarm systems. Presumably, these exceptions were included to help thwart video-game piracy and to avoid having malevolent actors use the manufacturer’s documentation to discover security vulnerabilities in alarm systems.
Importantly, the bill says that manufacturers cannot charge anything at all for repair tools or documentation unless these are provided in physical form. And even then, the charges must be for the “actual costs” of preparing and sending the tool or documentation.
This is one of the most significant parts of the bill, because it means that soon there may be far more information and software relevant to electronics and appliance repair available online.
Just last night I was scouring the Web for a wiring diagram for my clothes dryer. Surely an authorized repairer would have access to such a diagram, I thought to myself while hunting for the information. This law, should it be enacted, would compel manufacturers to make such things available to me as well, online for free, or at most for a nominal charge for a paper copy.
...although manufacturers would only be obligated to offer the same price and terms for spare parts that they offer authorized repair facilities. They could still make something awkwardly expensive to fix—just so long as everyone’s charged the same exorbitant price.
But before you declare victory in the fight to make electronics and appliances repairable, consider how the bill defines “fair and reasonable” when it comes to the cost of parts. Here, these words just mean that the price and terms must not be any worse than the best that the manufacturer offers to authorized repair facilities. A manufacturer isn’t obligated to make spare parts available. And it could still make something awkwardly expensive to fix by charging a lot for a particular repair part or assembly—it just can’t sell the unit to authorized repairers at a discount.
What drove Apple to endorse this bill is hard to judge. Presumably, the company, famous for dragging its heels when it comes to the right to repair, now sees it as inevitable that the government will give individuals and independent shops an expanding body of rights to repair electronic products. And the company’s letter to Senator Eggman spells out certain aspects of the bill that Apple liked—in particular, that the set of things a manufacturer must provide to individuals and independent shops is no broader than what it already provides to authorized repairers.
This bill was first introduced in the California state senate in January of this year. In May, it passed a roll-call vote in the upper house unanimously, with all 32 Democratic state senators voting for it along with six of the eight Republican state senators. (Two Republican senators were absent at the time of the vote.)
The bill is currently awaiting what’s called a suspense file hearing. It’s not that California lawmakers are trying to keep the rest of us in suspense. This name refers to a process by which bills are suspended from legislative processing until the relevant appropriations committee evaluates the fiscal impact of all pending bills and decides which of them should go forward to the floor for a vote.
Unless SB244 fails to make it through that filter, it will soon go to the California state assembly for a vote. Given its unanimous approval in the state senate, it’s hard to imagine it not passing. And unlike the situation in New York, where the governor watered down a right-to-repair bill before signing it, California governor Gavin Newsom will either have to sign it or not: Unlike the case in New York, California law doesn’t allow the governor to meddle with legislation after it’s been voted on.