MLaw professor testifies at Congressional Subcommittee on Right to Repair

By Bob Needham
Michigan Law

Congress should act to preserve the rights of consumers to repair items they own, Professor Aaron Perzanowski argued at a July 18 hearing in the US House of Representatives.

Perzanowski testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet on the developing concept of a “right to repair,” which is the title of his most recent book (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

“Over the last decade, the right to repair has emerged as a central challenge to the notion that we control the devices we buy. Instead, consumers, farmers, and small businesses across the country find that manufacturers exert post-sale control over these devices, often in ways that frustrate repair,” Perzanowski said in his testimony. The issue affects items from autos to software to consumer electronics.

“Consumers have strong expectations when it comes to their right to repair the devices they own. My own research, which is consistent with survey data and state-level referenda on repair, shows that more than 80 percent of consumers believe they should be able to repair their devices themselves or rely on the repair shop of their choice,” Perzanowski testified. 

While noting that some states have enacted laws supporting the right to repair and many others are considering such action, Perzanowski argued that a federal-level approach would be most effective. 

“Markets for vehicles, home appliances, and electronics are national in scope. While states are empowered to enact laws that safeguard the interests of their citizens, federal legislation promises consistency and uniformity that would benefit consumers, manufacturers, and repair providers. Moreover, since some repair restrictions are the byproduct of aggressive assertions of federal IP rights, Congress can provide much needed leadership by crafting sensible solutions that protect the rights of consumers while recognizing the need for balanced IP protections,” Perzanowski said in the hearing. 

His testimony continued with a history of the concept of repair—along with an overview of policies that can limit consumers’ abilities to repair their goods, including hardware design and software code. He also offered a legal analysis supporting the right to repair. 

Perzanowski’s testimony concluded, “The right to repair is a longstanding principle, reflected in both personal property and IP law. Without it, the fundamental notion of ownership—of our cars, our communications devices, our home appliances—is under threat. Safeguarding that right to repair is a complex legal problem that has no single solution. Beyond IP law, it presents questions of antitrust, consumer protection, and contract law, among others. Nonetheless, by addressing the ways in which IP law interferes with rights of Americans to fix the things they buy, Congress is positioned to help maintain and restore this core right of property owners.”

Perzanowski is the inaugural Thomas W. Lacchia Professor of Law. He teaches and writes about the intersection of intellectual and personal property law. Much of his work explores the notion of ownership in the digital economy. His other books include The End of Ownership, co-authored with Jason Schultz (MIT Press, 2016). His current book project addresses how shifting conceptions of ownership threaten to undermine the core functions of libraries.

"I'm encouraged that Congress is taking this issue seriously and considering ways we can make IP law less hostile to repair,” Perzanowski said after the hearing.