Beyond "Right to Repair": digital DIY and the Right to Keep Buying
I recently came across something which is, I believe, a good starting point to speculate (and, of course, research!) about some very specific impacts of Digital DIY (DiDIY) on "consumer rights", and on the retail and manufacturing industries in general.
There is a lot of concern about how 3D printing and other DiDIY technologies, that are becoming cheaper and easier to use every year, may lead to a boom of "piracy", that is of unauthorized production of products, both for sale and for "personal" use, in order to not pay for them the price requested by the original manufacturer or designer.
There has also already been some (but not enough, in my opinion) discussion and research on that other face of the same issue that is called "Right to Repair": the technical and legal possibility to manufacture by yourself the spare parts of some product, or to proceed to its maintenance (e.g. by self-building the hardware and software tools needed to service today's software-intensive cars) even without the permission of the original vendor of that product.
It is quite easy to find online complaints and concerns by several companies about the losses they already suffer, or may suffer in the near future, thanks to illegal copies of their products made via DiDIY techniques than it was feasible before 3D printing and similar practices. As I said, however, a few days ago I came across an unexpected, but perfect, very practical example of another kind of impact that DiDIY may have on the economy.
What happens when people do not buy an original product not because it costs more than they are willing to pay, but because it is not possible to buy it anymore? What happens, that is, when people do want to pay the "right price" for something, but cannot, because the only legal manufacturer of that product has gone out of business, or simply refuses to produce it anymore, for cost or whatever other reason?
With the current regime of copyright, trademarks, patents, combined with more and more often outsorcing of design and cross-licensing deals, it becomes more and more frequent that if a company dies, or just stops manufacturing something, nobody else is legally allowed to do it for many years. Sometimes, the situation is so complex that even figuring out who should give permission for what is really a hard task..
So far, people finding themselves in this situation had little luck and choices: all they could do was hope to find a "vintage" sample of that product. Or, in some cases, propose a petition to the manufacturer to resurrect that product, as this backpacker did last month:
"Can we start a consumer advocates group to force this company (i.e. Brunton) to start producing their great products again. The others are ok but these guys had it right! Dang they made good stuff.
- a flash lite that also becomes a lantern
- a stove that is a rocket and
- fork/spoon that fold in half and weigh less than a key
...Quality is spelled Brunton"
Of course, without even knowing any detail about Brunton (see that thread for some), and regardless of how many people would actually buy them today, it is almost sure that those specific products simply stopped being produced because they became less profitable than others for Brunton.
Fact is, today, combining descriptive representation through 3D scanning via 3D printing, CNC and other techniques, it is much cheaper and easier for everybody to build at home, or in any fablab, a perfect, working replica of any of the products that that backpacker so acutely misses. This opens several interesting questions, threats and opportunities including, but not limited to:
- is it wrong to have the guarantee that (with the obvious exceptions like in point 3, of course) you will be able to buy something you like if its creator stops producing it, as long as you where it comes from?
- should it become legal to build, and maybe even sell, perfect copies of a product, of course declaring them as copies, when it is not possible anymore to buy them from their manufacturer, without any permission from that manufacturer?
- will this boost or block innovation? Theoretically, if people can legally buy something that works for them as long as they want, this may boost real innovation: new products would be bought only because, and when, they are really better for some reason, not because the old ones aren't in stores anymore
- an obvious limit to this "right to keep buying" should safety. If, for example, new childproofing regulations made some old design illegal, or some material were discovered to be toxic, it is obvious that the interested product should not be produced anymore, regardless of who does it. In principle, new constraints or toxicity levels may be added on purpose without real needs, just to prevent the permanence on the legal market of products "adopted" by single makers, or new companies. However, since such new rules would also have to be followed by new products, the actual probability of this game is probably quite small.
- how will companies react to this? Are they ready for this scenario? For some of them, it may even be an opportunity to continue business with many customers. If they published themselves the full original designs of each product they don't want to produce anymore, maybe together with a list of "approved makers/fablabs" where consumers could go to have "official" copies, that could be a way to both keep customers "in the store" by proposing them new products at special conditions. And a way to expand in new markets, without setting up a full blown, traditional distribution and retail structure from day one