Right to Repair

Automotive Patents Are Out of Control, and They’re Making Repairs More Expensive

Collision repairs are getting more expensive, and that’s driving up insurance rates. It’s not going to get better. This week, the Federal Circuit court issued an opinion affirming the validity of design patents for automotive body parts. Put simply, this sets precedent for auto companies to patent more individual parts on their vehicles, forcing you to buy those parts directly from them instead of relying on a more affordable, third-party market for replacements. This is a bad thing.

This case began in 2013 when the Automotive Body Parts Association (ABPA) sued Ford over design patents for some of its F-150 truck parts, including a 2004 hood and a 2005 headlight. The members of the ABPA are companies that make third-party aftermarket versions of Ford’s parts in order to provide a lower-cost alternative to Ford owners seeking repairs. If Ford can limit them from doing so, it will mean higher prices for consumers. After losing in the Eastern District of Michigan, the ABPA appealed the decision to the Federal Circuit, which also sided with Ford.

a 2004 Ford F-150 truck.

Without getting too deep into the legalese, the crux of the matter lies in Ford’s patenting of the shape of individual exterior parts, rather than patenting the design of the truck as a whole. From the Federal Circuit court’s opinion:

[S]uch new hoods and headlamps are subject to Ford’s design patents, and manufacturing new copies of those designs constitutes infringement . . . Ford could have only claimed its design as applied to the whole truck. Unfortunately for ABPA, Ford did not do so; the designs for Ford’s hood and headlamp are covered by distinct patents, and to make and use those designs without Ford’s authorization is to infringe.

The usage of this tactic—creating design patents for individual parts to prevent repair—has been escalating for years. The number of patents filed by Ford, Honda, and Toyota have skyrocketed since the early 2000s. The bipartisan PARTS Act was designed to combat this, but after years, Congress has still not passed it.

A graph showing the increase of patents filed by Ford, Honda, and Toyota since the early 2000s.

The ABPA released a statement reaffirming its efforts to challenge the validity of Ford’s patents, and will continue to appeal the decision. As a precedent-setting case in patent law, it could drastically change the market for automotive repair—not to mention electronics repair, as Apple won a similar case in Norway last month.