A clash between a right-to-repair advocate and an equipment dealership owner at a House Small Business subcommittee hearing Wednesday was indicative of the internal battles legislators will wage as they consider measures that would require machinery manufacturers to provide software, parts and tools to customers looking to make their own repairs.
Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, and Ken Taylor, president of Ohio Machinery Co., sparred at an Underserved, Agricultural, and Rural Business Development subcommittee hearing over whether Congress should limit what restrictions companies are allowed to place on tools and information farmers, third-party mechanics and consumers can use to repair high-tech equipment.
Taylor, who represented the Association of Equipment Dealers at the hearing, expressed concern that giving ordinary people access to the internal software inside their equipment would allow them to modify emissions and safety controls in tractors and other vehicles. He said dealers already sell a number of parts to farmers, but do not want to see customers trying to tamper with internal controls for safety, environmental and intellectual property reasons.
“As a dealer, we have very high standards of what we want to see the customer experience and so those standards won’t be sacrificed,” Taylor said. “When we move outside the authorized dealer network, there’s no ability to control standards and companies meeting those standards.”
Gordon-Byrne, on the other hand, said farmers just want to be able to obtain parts and do repairs themselves. She said it can be difficult to find credentialed servicers to make some of the repairs needed in rural communities, forcing customers to travel long distances just to get their items fixed.
“All of these concerns about modding emissions and chipping tractors, that’s just not repair,” Gordon-Byrne said. “What we’re really asking for is the right to do something extremely simple that has become overcomplicated by these questions.”
The members of the subcommittee, the majority of which were Republican, expressed mixed views about potential right to repair legislation.
Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., asked why rural Minnesotans should have to “wait for engineers from Silicon Valley to come and fix a product they would happily fix themselves if given the chance.” He followed, however, by stressing that he wanted manufacturers to continue investing and innovating to improve their products.
“We must be thoughtful and considerate as we consider this issue to ensure that we do have any unintended consequences,” Stauber said.
Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, voiced support for dealers and manufacturers, saying customers generally don’t have problems sending their equipment to dealers for repairs. Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., said Congress would have to weigh what regulatory powers agencies like the Federal Trade Commission have on the issue before passing any legislation.
Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., expressed concern that proposals requiring manufacturers to provide access to their software would infringe on intellectual property rights. She urged a solution that would find “middle ground” between manufacturers, dealers and customers looking to make repairs.
“I think there’s maybe a middle ground here, because I don’t like to look at this as a zero-sum game,” she said.
Tenney, the ranking member of the subcommittee, asked Taylor if there was a way for dealers to contract with third-party repair manufacturers and train them to deal with equipment. Tenney said it would require approval from a manufacturer since dealers are just the middlemen.
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Brian Clark, a co-owner of the iGuys’ Tech Shop in New Hampshire, followed up by saying that would be a solution, but expressed concern that the manufacturers would attempt to exert control over third-party businesses like his by requiring them to submit financial statements or show them what accessories they are selling in their shops.
Jim Gerritsen, a farmer from Maine, urged legislators to pass legislation that would codify “traditional and independent” repair rights for farmers and third-party repair shops.
“If a farmer buys a piece of equipment, it should be understood that they’re buying the totality of it. It’s not that they’re buying simply the metal and not the brains behind it. This is a traditional right that we’ve always had,” Gerritsen said.
Gerritsen said he uses tractors from the 1970’s on his operation that he knows he is capable of repairing, rather than modern equipment.
“We would never choose to place ourselves in the vulnerable position of being at the mercy of malfunctioning electronic sensors, then being involuntarily forced into ‘limp mode,’ and becoming locked out from using equipment we ‘own’ until an expensive dealer mechanic arrives at their convenience with the rescuing computer software,” he said in his written testimony.
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