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Two of my favorite childhood memories are visiting the 1964 New York World's Fair and going trash picking on the streets of Brooklyn with my great Uncle Martin. Bright, kind, patient, and a bit more than "slightly eccentric," Martin was an inventor, teacher, and an inveterate tinkerer who did his own home and auto repairs. In addition to keeping all the appliances in his home running much longer than the manufacturers had intended, he made a sport of fixing other people's broken things, not all of whom were family or friends. If he'd lived another 20 years, I'm sure Martin would have been an early champion of the "Right to Repair" laws being passed in some states that may change how many products are designed, manufactured, and supported.

Our adventures would usually begin innocently as a quick run to the grocery store, or a trip around the block with one of Martin's mildly deranged dogs. But if it happened to be the day when people put their trash on the curb, it wouldn't be long before some odd bit of potentially salvageable technology caught his attention. Martin’s depression-era sensibilities made it nearly impossible for him to pass by an old radio, a rusty vacuum cleaner, or other “perfectly good stuff” without hauling it to his basement workshop and trying to coax it back to life.

Like an apprentice surgeon, I’d hover close to Martin as he carefully dismantled each of our finds to determine how badly broken they actually were. In many cases, the problem would turn out to be a worn out switch, a defective vacuum tube, or some other simple component that could be replaced from one of the carefully organized bins of spare parts that occupied the workshop's bulging shelves. In other cases, the damage was too great for us to deal with and the dead toaster, fire alarm, or electric drill would become an anatomy lesson, with my uncle providing a running commentary on the good, bad, and truly annoying bits of the product's design.

One of my uncle's most frequent complaints was that he was encountering a growing number of products that were never intended to be repaired. Even back in the 1960s, the critical innards of quite a few of the toys, appliances, and other consumer products we’d attempt to rescue were sealed within seamless molded plastic cases or sheet metal that had been spot welded, rather than screwed shut.  Likewise, there were often no provisions to enable adjustment or replacement of worn components. Martin would sometimes find devious ways to conduct guerrilla repairs on these “modern” products, but many of them were consigned to the landfill for the want of a 10-cent component that couldn’t be replaced.

The "no user serviceable components inside" business model my great uncle bemoaned 50 years ago is alive and well these days, especially with consumer electronics whose innards have become increasingly complex, compact, and delicate. But some manufacturers have gone to new and unprecedented measures to prevent unauthorized repairs or modifications to their products. Some personal electronics manufacturers, for example, deliberately make portions of their devices difficult to access, such as sealing their cases with glue rather than screws. Other companies attempt to thwart 3rd party repair shops by withholding technical information, proprietary repair tools, and spare parts. Other companies, including Apple, Cisco, and John Deere, have gone even further by claiming that they retain the ownership of the software and other intellectual property that resides in their products' innards.

Recently, these practices have begun to be challenged by so-called "Right to Repair laws" (also known as the Fair Repair Act) that have been passed in eight states and are under consideration in at least eight others. These laws require manufacturers to provide consumers and independent repair shops with the same service documentation and spare parts they provide to their authorized service providers. Similar pressure is building in Europe as France now has a law that makes "planned product obsolescence" punishable by hefty fines, and  the European Parliament recently indicated its intent to create regulations that will require manufacturers to make their products more easily repairable.

Although some may argue that Right to Repair laws are bad for business and stifle innovation, it's hard to ignore the success of the Open Source Software and Maker Movements, which both assert that users have the right to fix or modify any product they legally own. The fruits of these movements, including the Linux and Android operating systems, the Arduino and Raspberry Pi computing platforms, and the RepRap 3D printer project, are an integral part of many of the products and services that continue to fuel our economy's current wave of innovation and prosperity.

It's still too early to know how much Right to Repair laws will influence the way we design and manufacture products, but I know my great Uncle Martin would hope for a future where tinkering is still an option.

Do you think Right to Repair laws are helpful or harmful to our economy and society? Did you have a beloved aunt or uncle who enriched your childhood? Write me at lee.goldberg@advanatagemedia.com. And if you want to see modern-day tinkering in action, visit TinkerENG, our Reality TV show that helps amateur  inventors bring their wildest ideas from concept to marketwww.tinkerENG.com.

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