In My Opinion: The future of recycling and the digital right to repair

July 30, 2015
By Willie Cade, Founder and CEO, PC Rebuilders and Recyclers


I’ve been in this business long enough that I shouldn’t be surprised that I need to fly 3,000 miles to give a speech to 150 state legislators about the fight for the right to repair what I own, but I am.

On Tuesday Aug. 4 at the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), I will be representing the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and will speak on the “Future of Recycling.” Obviously this is no small task – and they have also asked that I not use any PowerPoint slides and do it all under five minutes.

For those of you that can’t make it to the meeting in Seattle next week and aren’t that familiar with the way the fight for the right to repair began, let me give you a little background.

Back in the heyday of the file-sharing service Napster, when 80 million registered users were uploading and downloading music by the gigabyte, the company was sued under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) for allowing folks to violate copyright law. It worked. Napster shut down its network in July 2001.

That part of the DMCA was fairly straightforward – it was intended to fight piracy; you can’t post music that you don’t own the copyright to and share that music with others.

Which brings us to another portion of the DCMA (section 1201 to be exact). This section contains what are called “anti-circumvention” provisions, which refer to technical protection measures which prohibit the circumvention of technological barriers for using a digital product in certain ways which the copyright holders do not wish to allow.

What does this mean? In the case of the used cell phone in your hand, it means that the copyright holder is the maker of the phone. And that copyright holder can say that you can’t bypass the activation lock to wipe it and sell it to someone else.

So here’s the rub …

Even though you bought the device, the business that sold you the device still controls your use of the item. So if they don’t want you to repair it, they can add locks to prevent that. Thanks to the DMCA, those locks are illegal to pick – forcing you to buy a new device. And to add insult to injury, you also aren’t allowed to make, sell or distribute any technology that is designed to circumvent the controls that are keeping you from fixing your phone.

I know of no software in use today that was released without a need for updating either for performance issues or for security concerns. As owners of these devices, users need to be able to fix or repair these devices and not just throw them away because the original or contracted manufacturer has moved on to a new model, which I am sure they would love for you to buy.

It’s no longer acceptable for manufacturers to say to toss that “old” device and buy our new “better” one. The carbon investment in making the devices is just too large. Besides, I don’t want to spend hours and hours setting up my new cell phone!

The good news is this – the good fight is being fought. There have been victories in cases as seemingly small as winning a decision in front of the Librarian of Congress and as large as President Barack Obama signing a cell phone unlocking bill into law that protects the digital right to repair.

But we need e-scrappers’ help. Go to to find out what you can do to further the right to repair the stuff that you own. Because this fight is up to us: either we take a stand now, or we may not have a business in the future.

Willie Cade founded PC Rebuilders & Recyclers, LLC over 15 years ago. The company is a Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher repairing and refurbishing computers both as an practicing environmentalist and to bridge the Digital Divide.


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