Neal St. Anthony
See more of the story

Consumers, including farmers, electronics fixers and recyclers and independent repair shops, appear to have a leg up this legislative session in deciding who fixes their smartphones, computers and tractors.

“Fair repair” legislation is under consideration in Minnesota and a couple dozen other states that would force manufacturers, from Apple to John Deere, to share their repair manuals and parts with independent repair shops beyond those selected by the manufacturers.

Minnesota bills backers were buoyed in recent months by stories in the Star Tribune of hard-pressed farmers who would rather buy and fix a 40-year-old Deere tractor than buy an expensive, $100,000-plus, electronics-laden machine they and their mechanic can’t repair.

Moreover, CompTIA, the national lobby for the computer industry, is no longer lobbying against right-to-repair legislation because of its “overriding commitment to advancing career opportunities for current and prospective IT professionals.”

A couple of Democratic presidential candidates have advocated for related national legislation as a way to support small independent repair shops and cut consumer expense, increase control over who fixes their products and reduce obsolescence that Apple and others have been accused of favoring in order to drive more sales.

“I expect we have a better shot this year because of CompTIA dropping its opposition, and it’s also helpful that the national Farm Bureau is softening its opposition,” Tim Schaefer, state director of Environment Minnesota, said in an e-mail. “We’re hoping to talk to some of the equipment manufacturers such as Toro and John Deere.”

Rep. Peter Fischer, D-Maplewood, chief House sponsor of the bill that would require public access to the parts, tools and manuals, expects to pass the bill in March out of the House Judiciary Committee.

That is the final bridge to cross en route to a vote in the DFL-controlled House.

However, Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, author of the Senate companion bill, said he doubts he could get the bill out of committee. “I don’t have the votes,” he said.

Osmek and Fischer are discussing an interim bill that likely would ask the Minnesota Department of Commerce to consider the “local community” economic impacts, whether urban or rural, of adding independent repair networks.

That’s being pushed by some manufacturers and implement dealers who now control repairs.

They have contended that the sophisticated black boxes that control farm equipment, for example, could pose a danger to farmers or their local repair shops. Environmental and consumer groups are focused on the rights of product owners.

“It’s not an ‘if,’ it’s a ‘when’ with this legislation,” said CEO Amanda LaGrange of TechDump, the 60-employee refurbisher and recycler of consumer and office electronics that makes most of its money from repairs and sales through its Tech Discounts business. “The consumer is finally realizing their power. They don’t want to have to keep buying new.”

The industry argument tends to be: this is complicated, electronic equipment that others than certified technicians could result in damage to the equipment or an amateur trying the repairs, particularly on heavy equipment.

But farmers are finding the issue with diagnosing equipment issues critical to their operations.

An owner of an iPhone who tries to change the battery without Apple software gets a warning that sends them to the Apple Store. Nikon, starting in April, will allow its cameras to be fixed at just two specific locations in the U.S.

Even Hasbro, the toymaker, has designed a Nerf dart blaster with sensors that prevent it from shooting cheaper aftermarket darts.

The auto industry settled with consumers and Congress years ago by agreeing to sell diagnostic equipment to independent repair chains and ma-and-pa shops, although the smaller operators increasingly are priced out by the cost of such electronic-discovery equipment and focusing on tires, batteries, brakes and parts not part of electronic black boxes.

A particularly strong case was made last year by CEO Jennifer Larson of Vibrant Technology of Eden Prairie.

“The only people who don’t like this bill are large original-equipment manufacturers, who have become monopolistic and [are] abusing their market power,” said Larson, whose company refurbishes and sells servers, networking and data storage hardware. “If you own it, you should be able to fix it. The free market is being squashed. It’s easy for large trade groups … to confuse legislators. They are running roughshod over property rights. And it’s controlled obsolescence. And we’re filling more and more landfills with this stuff.”

The two legislators indicated there could be compromises reached with industry that would accelerate certification of more independent technicians, from iPhones to tractors, that would give more owners more choices and speedier, economical service.