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Addressing the right to repair

Addressing the right to repair

Dr Matthew Rimmer will be speaking at the Clean Tech Conference in Brisbane in November. He talks to Waste Management Review about right-to-repair restrictions, and what attendees can expect from his talk.

Addressing the right to repair
Professor of Intellectual Property and Innovation Law Dr Matthew Rimmer.

With the explosion of new technologies over the past 20 years – from high-end PCs, mobile phones and gaming consoles, through to smart fridges, cars with in-built computers and high-definition televisions – it is not surprising that the amount of e-waste has increased exponentially.

It is not lost on Dr Matthew Rimmer either, who is a Professor of Intellectual Property and Innovation Law and the Queensland University of Technology. Matthew will be a key speaker at the Clean Tech conference that is being held at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre from 1 to 2  November, 2021.

Matthew’s interest in the e-waste sector takes on many facets. As well as innovations in the sustainability arena, he is keen to foster more research about cleaning technologies and making sure the circular economy meets its goals.

However, one roadblock is the right-to-repair. Like many people over a certain age, he remembers a time when certain technologies lasted a long time. And if something did happen that warranted a repair, then it wouldn’t cost too much to do so.

Today, that has changed in many ways. Not least, the big technology developers making rules around fixing their products if something goes wrong. This is all and well if your latest smartphone is under warranty, but what if it has passed that date?

As a lot of consumers can attest, the cost of repair can be too much, so they dispose of the product and buy a new one. Cynics will claim this is the manufacturers intent all along. But some budding entrepreneurs had other ideas – what if they could fix the technology at a much cheaper rate? Great idea. However, there has been a catch – the big tech companies sue independent repairers as they see it as an infringement on their intellectual property.

This is where the right-to-repair has become an issue. Do big tech companies have the right to stop their products being repaired by third-party vendors? Those in the ‘yes’ camp believe that, as well as saving on costs, there is the issue of making sure products don’t become e-waste casualties.

“There has been a lot of interest in right of repair in respect of PCs and gadgets and tablets and iPhones,” says Matthew. “There’s also been a lot of interest in some of the contents in relation to vehicles. Tesla for instance, has been opposed to right to repair – there has been lots of issues in terms of some smart cars and autonomous vehicle, too.”

One of the reasons Elon Musk’s company has an adverse reaction to right-of-repair is that some of the technology in the car is proprietary and therefore under trademark. However, can a huge conglomerate – whether it be a tech developer or car manufacturer – do anything about stopping right of repair?

“Apple famously and successfully sued an independent repairer in Norway, called Huseby, for trademark infringement,” said Matthew. “That was a significant dispute. There has been lots of threats against [global repairer community entity] ifixit over making manuals available online.

“In Australia, there has been a couple of interesting incidents. We’ve had a messy patent dispute over refurbishing printer cartridges in the High Court of Australia. In that case, it was found that the patent rights are exhausted at a certain point – once a product is sold and has been commercially exploited.”

As an academic who specialises in such things, how does Matthew feel about it? It all comes back to his thoughts on sustainability.

“It has been an urgent issue in terms of litigation in Australia,” he says. “Intellectual property is an important field over the right to repair. My personal perspective would be that I think that the intellectual property regime needs to promote sustainable development and a circular economy.

“I think we need to rebalance our intellectual property regimes to better encourage that sort of innovation. At the Clean Tech conference, I am hoping to talk a little about some of the innovation opportunities in the that field.”

And he says there are some influential people in both politics and business who think the right-of-repair issue, needs a fresh look. You couldn’t get anybody more powerful than US president Joe Biden, or somebody with more influence than Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

“The US federal trade commission said they are going to take enforcement action on the right to repair restrictions, so Joe Biden is very keen on the right to repair,” says Matthew.

“Lina Khan, his new appointee to the federal trade commission, has said she is going to make it a priority. That is a big development.

“Steve Wozniak…has come out very strongly criticising Apple for its litigation against independent repairers and efforts to thwart repair legislation. He noted, when he founded Apple, it was meant to be an open platform – you could tinker with it, you could hack it. Now Apple has created this closed proprietary walled garden. He’s been upset at that particular evolution.”

On the local front, the Productivity Commission of Inquiry into e-waste, product stewardship, sustainable development and the development of the circular economy is focusing on the issue. Australia in some ways has been lagging behind in some jurisdictions in trying to think about sustainable production and consumption, according to Matthew.

Overseas, the US sustainable development goals, in particular, have a heavy emphasis on the need for more sustainable approach to the modern economy. The EU has been pushing ahead with an eco-design regime – France introduced a repairability index this year.

“There has been a lot of questions from the productivity commissioners about whether or not Australia should adopt a similar index,” says Matthew. “In Australia, the key champion of the right to repair has been the ACT Attorney General, Shane Rattenbury, who is a Green Party politician. He is part of a Green/ALP coalition. As well as being concerned about consumer rights and competition policy, he has been very interested in e-waste, product stewardship and sustainable development and he also says that is raises larger questions about taking actions in terms of climate change.”

When presenting at the Clean Tech conference in November, Matthew will be covering off on that subject as well as the aforementioned sustainability and innovation aspects.

“There a definitely opportunities there to develop sustainable businesses,” he says. “This includes green forms of innovation that capitalise on the ingenuity and imagination of Australian researchers in this area.

“At the Clean Tech conference, I will be interested in having that conversation. My hope is that the Productivity Commission Report will be taken up by the government and that will create good market conditions to encourage some research, development and acceleration of clean technologies in this area.”

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