When I was young, I remember running around my grandfather's workshop – benches strewn with wood shavings, drawers overflowing with tools, shelves lined with dog-eared repair manuals. Perhaps it was characteristic of a generation touched by the Great Depression, but in my grandfather's era, repair information was practically public domain. Everything from tractors to home appliances came with detailed repair manuals. There was an expectation that if your tablesaw broke or your vacuum stopped working, you were going to open it up, figure out what was wrong, and fix it. If you got stuck, you called the manufacturer and they walked you through it.
Ironically, we now live in an age where information has never been more abundant, and yet every day more repair manuals disappear.
It's not an accident. Manufacturers of computers, mobile phones, appliances, and cars still create repair manuals for every product they ship. You're just not allowed to have them anymore. And that gap in repair information is hindering our efforts to create a circular economy.
Ignorance by design
Last year, Toshiba enraged the wired generation when it issued a mass takedown to Tim Hicks, a young Australian laptop refurbisher. Hicks runs Future Proof, a site that hosts ad-free, virus-free manufacturer repair guides for laptops. In no uncertain terms, Toshiba Australia's legal department told Hicks that he had to delete every one of its repair manuals.
Toshiba repair manuals belong to Toshiba only, they told Hicks in a letter. They contain proprietary information that only Toshiba and authorised repair technicians were privy to. Hicks wasn't allowed to have them, nor was anyone else.
Without the resources to take on the corporate giant, Hicks complied, a common reaction for recipients of takedown notices. More than a year later, the manuals remain inaccessible and consumers who wanted to fix their computer have one fewer resource to rely on.
Toshiba's actions are symptomatic of a much larger corporate tactic to quell independent repair. Only a handful of electronics producers, including Dell, HP, and Lenovo, voluntarily release service manuals to the public for free. Others, including Apple, Acer and Sony, refuse to release repair, maintenance, or service manuals to the public, using copyright claims to scrub internal manuals off the web when third parties post them.
A copyright conundrum
It's unclear whether companies like Toshiba and Apple are within their rights. No one can legally copyright facts or procedures but you can copyright any form of creative work, like writing. Manuals, despite their lack of creative or artistic merit, are a form of writing. Companies aren't going out on a limb by hiding them behind the shield of copyright.
My company iFixit, a free repair manual for everything, has dodged copyright entanglements by taking apart products, writing our own guides from scratch and posting them online for free. We're trying to fill the information gap left when manufacturers use copyright to keep their manuals offline. We're making progress, one industry at a time—we have just finished a clothing-repair manual in conjunction with Patagonia. However, with thousands of new products hitting the market every single year, our community doesn't have enough time or resources to tackle them all.
Let me make one thing clear: copyrighting repair manuals doesn't protect creative work and it doesn't prevent knock-off artists from copying design. All it does is stop people from fixing their things. It prevents independent repair facilities and shops from having the information they need to repair your stuff at competitive prices. And it prevents refurbishers from having the resources they require to fix products and put them back on the market.
Without critical repair information from the manufacturer, more and more of our goods will be shredded for recycling or worse, simply thrown away to make up part of the 1.37m tonnes of e-waste Britain disposes of each year.
Ignorance comes at a price
A circular economy is based on the premise that every element is precious; every resource we dig up should have a life beyond its first use; and every product we create should be repaired and reused before it's considered for recycling.
Repair and reuse is an important loop in a circular economy because they are the most resource-efficient way to manage end-of-life products. Unlike recycling, repair lengthens the life of goods without compromising material quality or expending any extra resources. Reuse means our stuff can go on to a second, third, or even fourth life before recycling.
By limiting repair information, manufacturers are eliminating the possibility of repair for thousands of consumers and refurbishers. Worse, they are short-circuiting the circular economy.
So, when buying a new gizmo, check to see if the manufacturer posts service and repair information on its website. Support the companies that are doing a good job, and pressure other companies to share because a circular economy is our best opportunity to develop an economic system that works with the environment instead of against it.
All we need now are the right instructions.
This article originally ran with The Guardian.