Last year Alissa Centivany and her two daughters embarked on an adventure sparked by one ambitious goal: not to buy anything new for 365 days.
Centivany, professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, is an expert on the “Right to Repair,” a growing movement advocating for Canadians to have the ability to fix their own products and devices, despite corporate practices that block consumers from doing just that.
She’s even shared her knowledge with House of Commons standing committee on industry and technology, speaking to government leaders twice in the last two months about the ways Canadian copyright law limits the ability to make repairs, or connect various technology products together.
“Because I’m a researcher, I like to do little experiments on myself, too,” Centivany said.
“I was really curious about my own relationship to consumption,” she said. “How much do we really need to acquire new stuff, and how much of this is driven by some kind of emotional comforting?”
The problem isn’t just the use of copyright law to block at-home repairs. There is a much wider set of consequences stemming from overconsumption, frequent spending and constant replacement of our belongings, Centivany said. She worries about the environmental, economic and societal ramifications of a buy-more and “throwaway” culture.
Thrifting and buying used items online were still allowed during Centivany’s buy-nothing-new year. Her family ended up breaking the rule very rarely, with an exception for a special dress to mark her daughter’s grade 8 graduation.
“It was interesting to sit in that discomfort, of ‘I really want this thing, but I’m going to hold up’,” she said.
It led to some great stories, too, like the time they ventured out on a snowy winter night to pick up a glass enclosure, a replacement for the cage destroyed by their pet hamster, ending up 30 minutes outside of town at a home full of enormous snakes.
Centivany, who has a PhD in information science and a JD specializing in intellectual property and technology law, makes the case for why the right to repair movement should matter to everyone – even those who aren’t well versed in copyright law or don’t have any interest in fixing their own household products.
Right to repair advocates want manufacturers to make replacement parts, and even diagnostic elements like diagrams and manuals, available.
“When repair is accessible, that gives more opportunities for people to have the things they need or want,” Centivany said.
From protecting the environment to not breaking the budget to cultivating a sense of hope, “important human values are tied up with repair,” she said.
Digital locks hinder consumers
From tractors to kitchen appliances, repairs are becoming more complicated for all kinds of products, Centivany said.
“A lot of the devices we have now are computerized, whether it’s our toaster oven, our cars or our ink jet printers. From a legal standpoint, copyright law protects software code the same way it protects a novel,” she said.
Manufacturers use digital locks – technological protection measures, or TPMs under copyright law – to prevent access to the inner workings of computerized items. It’s illegal to break or bypass a digital lock.
A consumer may have to use a company’s authorized repair service providers instead of their own local fix-it shop. Sometimes, the product can’t be fixed at all, but must instead be tossed and repurchased or upgraded.
“It’s like manufacturers are lassoing in all copyright law as a way to control what people do with the things they own,” Centivany said.
Not everyone wants to open their items and tinker, of course.
“Repair work is often a skilled trade. It really benefits local economies, when you can get on the phone and call a local repair person to help you extend the life of things you have,” Centivany said.
Bringing research to Ottawa
Centivany recently testified before the House of Commons standing committee grappling with these issues, including on Bill C-244, a private member’s bill to amend portion of the Copyright Act to allow the circumvention of TPMs for diagnosis, maintenance and repair, and Bill C-294, a bill to permit the circumvention of TPMs for interoperability.
“Being a part of a policy-making process on these issues just felt really great,” Centivany said, adding she was honoured to be invited to speak and field questions from MPs.
“These are some of the few open political questions that have really broad support. The vast majority of people support right to repair and interoperability, regardless of if they are far left, far right, or where they live,” Centivany said.
Changing copyright rules won’t be a silver bullet, though. Repair can be made difficult in other ways, too, like how products are designed – think smartphones, glued and soldered together – or business strategies that make replacement cheaper or easier than fixing.
Centivany invests in repairs at home and abroad.
She used grant funds to buy tools for a “Thing Library” run by Reimagine Co., and helped with a pop-up Repair Café where volunteers stepped in to help people fix all sorts of items. Centivany is also involved with Glia, an organization making 3D-printed medical parts like stethoscopes for use where healthcare equipment is hard to come by.
Those grassroots efforts highlight the value of right to repair for Centivany.
“A lot of us feel like we are strapped for money, whether it’s our grocery bills or just the cost of living going up, and corporations are developing new ways to extract more and more and more from us, while simultaneously limiting our agency and ability to do things that we’ve always been able to do,” Centivany said.
“It’s really untenable. It’s not good for society, for the health of our communities and planet, or the health of ourselves as people.”
Right to Repair: A Timeline
Early 2000s: ‘Right to Repair’ movement emerges.
2009: MP Brian Masse proposes right to repair legislation, but instead the auto industry opts for voluntary agreements.
2019: MPP Michael Coteau introduces Bill 72, Consumer Protection Amendment, the right to repair electronic products, in the Ontario legislature. It is defeated upon second reading the same year, after politicians express concern about the impact on the province’s “open for business” motto, especially as it relates to high-tech products.
2021: Private member’s bill C-272, Act to Amend the Copyright Act for diagnosis, maintenance or repair, is introduced in the House of Commons by MP Bryan May in February. It passes second reading but does not become law before the 2021 federal election is called, dissolving Parliament.
2022: An identical private member’s bill, C-244, is introduced by MP Brian Masse. It passes first and second reading and is sent to standing committee.
2023: The bill continues to be debated by the standing committee on industry and technology, with experts providing testimony.
2030: Canada’s deadline to reach goal of zero plastic waste, with plans to encourage repair, reuse and refurbishment through a circular economy to extend the useful life of products.
BY THE NUMBERS*
75% of Canadians supported ‘Right to Repair’ legislation in a 2019 public opinion survey
$34.3 billion in revenue for repair and maintenance services in Canada in 2021, up 8.2% from 2020
$21.6 billion in revenue for car repair industry in Canada in 2021
44,851 auto shops across the county in 2021
10.8 million tonnes of waste sent to the dump by Canadian households in 2018, or 725 kg per home
5% of households repaired or sold an unwanted cellphone in 2019
*Facts and figures from Statistics Canada and the Waste Management Industry Survey