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Communications of the ACM

Legally speaking

An Emergent Legal Right to Repair Electronic Devices

open smartphone with internals visible, illustration

Credit: Klyaksun / Shutterstock

In the not too distant past, anyone who owned a machine or other device—whether it be a radio, a typewriter, a bicycle, or a car—had an unquestionable right to repair that device if and when it broke down. Often owners could take their devices apart, diagnose problems, and fix or replace the broken parts themselves. Moreover, if the owners lacked skills to repair their own devices, they could take the devices to independent repair shops. It was once common for manufacturers to provide schematics to aid repair efforts and attract customers to purchase their devices.

Well, that was then, and this is now. With software now pervasively embedded in all manner of devices—cars, tractors, toasters, and smartphones, just to name a few—it has become difficult, and sometimes impossible, for owners of devices to repair them when they break down or have them fixed by independent repair shops. Often this is because parts, tools, and schematics are unavailable. But because embedded software is copyright-protected and often subject to license and technical restrictions on reverse engineering, repair, and maintenance, repairing your own devices or hiring others to repair them may also be legally risky.2


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