Andy Harding, the owner of Salem Techsperts, a small electronics-repair shop in Salem, Massachusetts, has been serving his local community for eight years. His business thrives on fixing cracked iPhone screens for college students and nearby hospital staff. However, when Apple released the iPhone 13 in September 2021, Harding noticed a software change that could potentially jeopardize his shop’s survival.

One of the most common repairs at Harding’s shop is fixing cracked iPhone screens, which generates substantial revenue. However, the latest iPhone model introduced a new feature that detected screen replacements, including repairs, and disabled the FaceID functionality. This development caused panic among repair shop owners, including Harding.

Harding explained, “People invest in a phone with FaceID and expect it to work. Cracked iPhone screens are the primary repair service for shops like mine. I couldn’t sustain my business without that aspect.”

Although Apple eventually released a software update that allowed FaceID to function after a screen repair, users still receive a warning that the screen is not genuine unless they use an “Apple-authorized” repair provider. This raises a fundamental question: Why should individuals require Apple’s authorization to fix their own phones? After all, they have already purchased and own the device.

Apple is not the only company imposing restrictions on products that customers have already bought. As more devices rely on software, manufacturers are exerting control even after the purchase. Some companies force customers to use their repair services, disabling the product if they attempt self-repairs. Others require ongoing subscriptions to access basic features of the purchased goods.

Manufacturers leverage modern software to bind consumers to their ecosystem indefinitely. They are just beginning to monetize this control, often taking advantage of America’s imbalanced copyright laws. However, consumers and policymakers have options to counter this corporate attempt to redefine ownership.

The notion of ownership becomes blurred: You bought it, but do you really ‘own’ it?

Imagine a hypothetical summer Monday in the future. You start your coffee machine remotely (for $5 a month) while you engage in a workout on your stationary bike ($30 a month for class access). As you prepare to leave for the office, the smart thermostat automatically adjusts the air-conditioning ($10 a month feature), and you use an app to remotely start your car ($20 a month). But what if you need a minor repair? Forget about using your own screwdriver; you’ll have to rely on the manufacturer.

While this scenario may seem far-fetched, the rise of subscription services for consumer products is bringing it closer to reality. The global e-commerce subscriptions market is projected to reach approximately $904 billion by 2026, up from around $73 billion in 2021. Beyond meal-delivery boxes and streaming services, companies are increasingly making access to purchased goods contingent on ongoing payments. For businesses, the appeal of subscriptions is clear: a steady revenue stream and increased profits from customers over time. Software development and maintenance costs are significantly lower than hardware manufacturing, allowing for substantial profit margins through recurring revenue.

Companies employ various tactics to keep customers tied to their products after purchase. One tactic involves technical sensors that prevent unauthorized modifications. Farmers in America, for example, face difficulties fixing their newer equipment like tractors and combines due to manufacturers’ exclusive tools and complex computer systems. Repair restrictions cost farmers an additional $4.2 billion annually, with $1.2 billion going to authorized dealers and $3 billion lost to equipment downtime. Similarly, Tesla’s software can detect and restrict features for car owners who use non-company equipment, such as after-market tow hitches.

In other instances, companies block access to certain features unless customers pay additional fees. Luxury car manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz and BMW have charged users monthly fees for improved acceleration and the use of heated seats, respectively. Printer companies have used similar tactics by offering ink-level monitoring subscriptions that can remotely disable machines if payments lapse. Imagine having to pay a monthly fee to the contractor who built your house just to use the light switches!

Manufacturers also utilize internet connectivity to monitor and control users’ actions. If manufacturers detect behavior they disapprove of, they can take away or disable other features. Tesla, for instance, has been accused of remotely revoking charge capacity, fast-charging compatibility, and other features. Consumers are hesitant to take actions that might upset manufacturers, knowing they could face consequences.

One might expect regulations to prevent such policies that make consumers simultaneously “buy” and “rent” products. However, existing laws often work against consumers, granting manufacturers excessive control. Overly broad copyright laws, in particular, can criminalize bypassing technical systems to repair one’s own device. While the Digital Millennium Copyright Act aimed to prevent piracy, manufacturers argue that it applies to software or firmware necessary for hardware repair or operation. This broad interpretation of intellectual property has hindered independent repair and fundamentally altered consumers’ relationship with their purchased goods. For instance, bypassing digital-protection measures around heated seats could be seen as piracy, which is nonsensical and confusing.

Manufacturers further complicate matters with lengthy user agreements containing language that prevents customers from tinkering with their products. Consumers often blindly agree to these terms and conditions, rarely reading or understanding them. In a 2017 Deloitte survey of 2,000 consumers, 91% admitted to clicking “agree” without reviewing the terms.

Hidden within these dense documents are provisions that restrict consumers’ ability to repair their goods or enable companies to revoke ownership based on customers’ usage. Slipping these terms past consumers undermines their basic rights.

Promoting transparency and preserving consumer ownership

I advocate for truth in advertising. If you sell a product, sell it outright. If you lease a product, make that clear. Embedding secret “agreements” into technology that consumers are unaware of is deceptive. Furthermore, tinkering and fixing are longstanding American traditions. Repairing not only imparts critical skills but also saves consumers money, reduces waste, and combats product obsolescence. Moreover, tinkering and fixing can lead to product innovations that benefit everyone.

There are solutions to protect consumer ownership. One approach is enacting right-to-repair legislation, which I have worked on in multiple states over the past five years. Right to repair mandates that manufacturers provide consumers with access to parts, tools, and repair information on fair terms. It also prohibits parts and tools from requiring remote authentication for operation, eliminating the need to seek permission for repairs. Currently, 28 states have considered some form of right-to-repair legislation in 2023, and Congress has held multiple hearings on the topic. Laws have already been passed in Massachusetts, Colorado, and New York, and this movement is just getting started.

Another step is clarifying that repair is not a copyright violation. The Freedom to Repair Act, introduced last year, aims to grant a broad, permanent exemption for repair activities under copyright law. Alongside new legislation, it is crucial to enforce existing laws effectively. Anti-competitive tying arrangements, where purchasing one product requires buying additional products or services, should be deemed violations of antitrust laws. Anyone who has tried to find cheaper ink for their printer knows that this enforcement is lacking.

The US Federal Trade Commission and the US Department of Justice must crack down on embedded software that forces product owners to pay monthly fees for using their own hardware. Regulators should also take action against unfair terms in user license agreements, similar to how they have banned certain anti-consumer clauses from credit-card agreements.

In the digital age, we need updated consumer protections that recognize our agency as product owners. We should be able to repair our possessions without fear of reprisal. Signing away our rights at the time of purchase should not be a requirement. Continuous monitoring of our activities by remote manufacturers, granting them authority to approve or reject our choices regarding purchased products, must come to an end.

By Impact Lab