Repair vs. Liberation: Understanding the Nuances of the Right to Repair and Free Software Movements

Sun, 25 Feb 2024

Two important movements have emerged: the Right to Repair movement and the Free Software movement. While both are important in their ways, there are significant differences in their underlying philosophies and goals. In this post, I'll dive into these distinctions and how to collaborate strategically while ensuring that software freedoms aren't sidelined.

The Right to Repair: Restoring Functionality

The Right to Repair movement primarily emerged to address repairing physical items, whether a worn-out tractor or the ability to replace a broken cell phone screen. It's about ensuring that people have the information, tools, and parts necessary to repair their stuff rather than being forced to rely on the original manufacturer. It's a response to the growing trend of manufacturers restricting access to repair information and making products deliberately challenging to fix.

At its heart, the Right to Repair movement is about securing the means to restore and maintain the functionality of broken devices. Here's a breakdown of its essential components:

  • Access to Repair Manuals and Diagnostic Tools: Manufacturers should provide the documentation and tools that independent repair shops and individuals need.
  • Availability of Spare Parts: Companies should make genuine replacement parts readily available and affordable and not stop third parties from making their own, whether through legal or technological means.
  • Anti-Restriction Legislation: Laws should prevent manufacturers from designing products that intentionally hinder or block repairs outside authorized channels.

The Right to Repair movement is fundamentally about regaining practical ownership of our devices. It's about ensuring longevity and reducing e-waste. While a noble and practical effort, the Right to Repair movement primarily addresses problems of hardware and the physical limitations imposed by manufacturers.

Software falls under its purview only when specific software blocks or intentionally hinders physical repairs when it has no apparent reason to exist but to frustrate those repair efforts. I can envision additional methods of linking software with the Right to Repair movement by arguing that the presence of a bug could be interpreted as a form of "repair" necessity. While some people have made that claim, the argument only extends to that point.

The Free Software Movement: It's About Freedom

On the other hand, the Free Software movement, spearheaded by Richard Stallman, has deeper roots and a broader philosophical scope about much more than mere "repair" of software. It centers around four essential freedoms:

  • Freedom to Run: Users should be free to run software for any purpose whatsoever.
  • Freedom to Study: Users should be able to access, examine, and understand how software works. This requires access to the program's source code.
  • Freedom to Modify: Users should be able to any kind or type of change that they wish, a vital distinction when we compare "repair" to other kinds of "modifications."
  • Freedom to Redistribute: Users should have the right to share copies of the software, both original and modified versions, with others.

These freedoms of the Free Software movement go far beyond fixing a bug or a broken feature. While "repairing" bugs falls under these freedoms, the Free Software movement goes far beyond that and isn't focused merely on fixing problems. In free software, the user of a program should be free to make any changes to a program that they wish, even if that change isn't necessary to "repair" it. A software license that limited modifications only to those essential to fix bugs or to enable hardware repairs, for example, might be acceptable by the ethos of the Right To Repair movement but not the Free Software Movement.

To illustrate this point, consider the founding of the Free Software movement as described by Richard Stallman himself: https://jxself.org/better.ogg. As you can hear, he didn't start the movement for technical matters because UNIX had bugs to be "repaired." He didn't start the Bug-Free Software Foundation. Instead, he founded the Free Software Foundation to ensure that users have control over their computing and the software that does that computing. It's about ethics - about right and wrong. That it's wrong to distribute proprietary software - It should be distributed as free software or not at all.

Collaborations and Diverging Paths

While there may be a natural intersection and overlap between the Right to Repair and Free Software movements, it's essential to recognize that they are fellow travelers on different paths and to remember a vital distinction when these movements work together: Repair alone does not equate to freedom for software.

Free Software advocates fighting alongside the Right to Repair movement should avoid presenting Right to Repair as the be-all and end-all and always stress that simply being able to fix problems within proprietary software doesn't establish genuine user control or empowerment. The Free Software movement's four freedoms should remain front and center when collaboration occurs to avoid letting the Right to Repair narrative dilute the message of the Free Software movement.

Cooperate, But Educate

The Free Software movement can support Right to Repair legislation and initiatives in specific contexts where it makes sense to do so while at the same time making it clear that the goals of free software extend far beyond "fixability." Every collaboration is an opportunity to educate the public about the importance of software freedom and the limitations of a purely repair-focused approach.