Meet the man who went to jail for repair

Eric Lundgren is a social entrepreneur and environmentalist. He is also one of the best examples of how far companies will go in their battle to restrict our right to repair. In April 2018, Eric was given a 15-month prison sentence for making system restore disks to help people use recycled computers. What's even more baffling is that the software on the disks is available free for anyone to download from the manufacturer.

Where did it all start? 

Lundgren started refurbishing and recycling at the age of 16. By 19, he was recycling computers professionally for companies like American Airlines. Throughout his work, he realised that the process of recycling old computers simply didn't go far enough. Discarded computers were scrapped and smelted, wasting many potentially reusable parts in the process. This led him to launch what he calls the first “electronic hybrid recycling facility" in the United States. His facility worked with Chinese recyclers to salvage working parts from old electronics and use them to build and restore machines. Together, they save more than 41 million pounds of e-waste from landfill every year. The facility even used discarded parts to build an electric car that was able to break the world record for distance travelled on a single charge.

How did he end up in prison? 

A computer is useless without an operating system. Eric Lundgren created thousands of Windows restore disks to allow restored computers to run. The software on the disks was free, and available online from the hardware provider. Even more puzzling, the disks are only able to be installed on a computer with a valid Microsoft licence. Lundgren believed that because the disks were free and used with a valid licence, it was not illegal to distribute them.   

This, however, was not the case, and he was charged with a list of offences including conspiracy to traffic in counterfeit goods and criminal copyright infringement. Even though the disks were free to download, and not used on unlicensed computers, the courts found that Lundgren had displaced $700,000 in revenue. The ruling is one of many examples of how electronics manufacturers see repair as a threat to their revenue stream.

Why this matters?

Electronic waste is a mounting problem. In 2016 alone, we threw out over 44.7 million metric tons of electronics. E-waste leaks toxins into the environment including mercury and arsenic. Less than 1 in 5 of our devices get recycled, which means the demand for new tech leads to the harmful mining for cobalt. We need to find a better way of dealing with our discarded electronics. That means making the tech that we have last longer and doing a better job of recycling gadgets once they have reached the end of their lifespan.

What next?

'Right to Repair' bills are gathering momentum all over the world. In 2019, the EU will look to introduce its first 'Right to Repair laws', and there are at least 18 states in the U.S. looking into similar arrangements. These laws will require manufacturers to design devices that can be repaired, and make spare parts and instructions for repair more readily available. To read more about this, head over to our friends at Restart who helped table the Manchester Declaration, which is being used to advocate for the 'Right to Repair' in the EU.