Copyright and Planned Obsolescence: The Shady World of Repair Manuals
By Kyle Wiens
photo: Gerry Dincher / Flickr
Tim Hicks is a 25-year-old Australian with an interesting hobby: He trawls the nooks and crannies of the internet looking for manufacturer service manuals and posts the PDFs online for free. Hicks was frustrated that there wasn’t a single website out there with every laptop service manual. He started the site – aptly named “Tim’s Laptop Service Manuals“ – because he fixes laptops himself.
Tim’s site now streams over 50 gigabytes of manuals every day. Or rather … it used to. In a recent strongly worded cease-and-desist letter, Toshiba’s lawyers forced Tim to remove manuals for over 300 Toshiba laptops.
Tim’s many fans have expressed surprise at Toshiba’s onslaught – check out some of the Reddit commentary — and I’m outraged, too. Not just because of this specific case, but because of what it means for the lifetime of our devices, the future of repair and e-waste, and the abuse of copyright law as a weapon for planned obsolescence.
Keeping manuals off the internet ensures the only path for beleaguered customers is sending broken devices back to high-priced, only-manufacturer-authorized service centers. By making it so expensive and inconvenient to repair broken electronics, this policy amounts to planned obsolescence: many people simply throw the devices away.
Toshiba has discovered a new way to enforce such planned obsolescence by cutting the repair market off from critical service information. But the cost to society is significant: The e-waste problem is growing; we’re losing thousands of domestic jobs as independent repair shops shut down; and consumers are being forced to replace their hardware much frequently than they should have to.
The Shady World of Online Manuals
Many manufacturers don’t publish manuals online, so they’re only available from third-party sites with suspicious names like “Givemefile.net” and “download-service-manuals.com.” These sites create networks of ad-riddled pages for each file in an elaborate dance to boost their Google juice above their competitors’.
Downloading manuals in this shady world means finding the one good link in a page of misleading ads … and then praying that the file just downloaded isn’t infected with malware.
Tim is one of the good guys. His site is ad-free and supported by donations. Tim’s website benefits everyone from service technicians to nonprofits like Computers for Schools. It also benefits a number of small and local businesses, since the manuals he posts fuel a number of repair shops – especially those doing service after the warranty expires. (Most neighborhood computer repair shops aren’t authorized by the manufacturer to service computers within the warranty period; these shops function independently of the big OEMs, much like local automotive repair shops.)
Killing the manuals kills these businesses. Repair isn’t economically viable without manuals: To service any complex product, repair shops need the service information encapsulated in the manuals.
The Copyrighting Game
In the automotive world, federal legislation requires auto manufacturers to provide manuals to independent shops. Some organizations, like AllData and Mitchell 1, collect manuals from every manufacturer, bundle them together, and sell subscriptions – creating jobs for their over 100,000 mechanics. Independent shops wouldn’t be able to repair modern cars without this information.
Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent legislation for electronics. An uneasy detente exists between independent service shops and manufacturers through a “grey market” of information where service and repair information gets out through unofficial channels. Authorized technicians leak the manuals to people like Tim, who post it online; the service shops aren’t breaking any laws when they use these manuals to fix our computers.
But sites like Givemefile.net, download-service-manuals.com, and Tim’s are breaking the law. It’s illegal to redistribute copyrighted service manuals without manufacturer consent. Even so, a number of websites provide these critical documents to the service techs who need them. File sharing is a grey world.