Consumer Rights

When Did We Stop Owning Our Stuff?

via Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

Commerce is one of the first lessons we teach our children: give money to the person at the store, and in exchange, you get a thing that is now yours. Sure, as we grow up we learn variations on the theme—contracts with deposits, leases, co-op memberships—but for the most part, buying something to own it is how we understand business. The general store on Sesame Street comes to make sense.

But many businesses have their own versions of “buying.” They’re helped by popular acceptance of the “cloud” as something we all must connect to, and of devices as too complicated for busy humans to understand. The variations on “owning” something would almost be impressive, if they weren’t depressing:

As we advocate to restore our  Right to Repair, those of us at iFixit are usually mad, sad, and astonished on a few different levels. We’re thinking about the environmental cost of e-waste, the frustration felt by the person trying to make something work, or maybe the financial cost of having to replace entire logic boards instead of fixing one tiny wire. Sometimes we just can’t believe how much glue is packed inside something. But we often overlook the interference such hostile designs are running between you and your fundamental right to fully own, customize, and enjoy something.

“If you can’t fix it, you don’t own it.” It’s at the very top of our Self-Repair Manifesto, above the bits about recycling, money, and education. It’s fundamental to understanding the difference between a product that wants to be useful, to one or more owners, and a product that exists only to facilitate flows of money from the customer to the company. If a product is designed such that it’s deliberately hard to understand how it works, how you might fix it, customize it to your needs, or use it in a way that is not promoted (but still legal and orthodox), then it’s the latter.

It’s not just gadgets, either. Until recently, you could purchase and watch movies from the locker service UltraViolet, until the movie studios decided to back a different ecosystem-licensing thingy. What followed was a series of confusing and dire emails to customers, letting them know they should not un-link their UltraViolet accounts from their Vudu accounts (sorcery!) between the announcement and shutdown, because they could lose everything they’d purchased.

The same could happen with games on Steam or Epic, movies on iTunes or Google Play or Amazon, ebooks on Nook or Kindle—there are some work-arounds and exports, but the companies that own the servers largely dictate when you have access, in which formats, and through which apps. It already happened with Microsoft’s ebook store, and while there were some refunds and coupons, customers lost access to everything they bought. It’s a lot like looking at a device: if there are a lot of conditions under which you can or cannot mess with it, or try to make it better, it’s not really ownership.

So maybe you don’t get as worked up about weird screws, flimsy cables, or hard-to-scrape glue as we do. That’s fine! We also fight on behalf of independent repair shops who can do the work for you. But we’re not really talking shop—we’re talking about freedom. You should own the things you buy, to the fullest extent possible. It’s so simple a five-year-old should get it.

This post was written in the spirit of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Copyright Week, on the day of Device and Digital Ownership.