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Why the McFlurry machines at McDonald's are always broken

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

McFlurries - you know, those tasty frozen treats from McDonald's? - they are popular. But finding one can be tricky. The ice cream machines that make McFlurries are notorious for breaking down. Brittany Cronin, from our daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money, explains why getting one fixed is far from simple.

BRITTANY CRONIN, BYLINE: Shahram Mokhtari recently got his hands on an ice cream machine pretty similar to the ones used at McDonald's to make McFlurries. Shahram is the lead teardown technician at iFixit, a company that helps people figure out how to repair their stuff.

SHAHRAM MOKHTARI: We managed to get good ice cream for a short while, and then it turned liquid again.

CRONIN: People all over the country complain about these machines breaking down all the time. The only way to get them fixed without breaking your warranty is to call the Taylor Company, which makes them, but that costs money and takes time. We reached out to Taylor's parent company to ask about this. They didn't get back to us by press time. So Shahram wanted to see what was up with the machine and why it's so hard for users to fix on their own. He says when he got into the guts of the machine, its software spit out a bunch of cryptic error codes.

MOKHTARI: I had days and a couple of weeks to sit down and figure out what these error codes meant and how I can get rid of them just through trial and error.

CRONIN: The machine's software has information that could have helped Shahram figure out what was going wrong, but he was locked out of that software because of a 1998 law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The law prohibits anyone from bypassing a digital lock to access copyrighted material. Meredith Rose is senior policy counsel at the nonprofit Public Knowledge. She says the law was meant to prevent piracy of things like movies and music. But in practice, Meredith says it kind of just prevents people from fixing their electronics.

MEREDITH ROSE: So any piece of software that has a lock around it, you can't bypass that lock, even if it's just to fix your tractor or to fix your iPhone.

CRONIN: And these days, software is all around us, in your car, in your phone.

ROSE: It's in your refrigerator often. It's in your washing machine. It's sometimes in your lightbulbs. And so more and more, when things break down, you need to be able to get around these digital locks to fix them.

CRONIN: Meredith is a supporter of something called the right to repair. It's the idea - and a growing movement - built on the concept that once you buy a product, you own it, and therefore you should be able to fix it yourself or bring it to a technician of your choice rather than relying on the manufacturer. But all is not lost for DIY fixers. Congress built a sort of release valve into its 1998 copyright law.

ROSE: The release valve was that every three years, essentially anyone who wants to be able to bypass these locks shows up at the Copyright Office, and they ask, can I have an exemption?

CRONIN: The Copyright Office has made exemptions for consumer products, like boats and computers and Xboxes. But industrial equipment - that's different. If you want to repair that kind of stuff, like the ice cream machines used to make McFlurries, that is still prohibited by law - for now. The folks at iFixit and Public Knowledge petitioned for an industrial repair exemption. That will be decided on next year. But Aaron Perzanowski, law professor at University of Michigan, says, even with these exemptions, a lot of people just don't have the technical skills to fix their stuff.

AARON PERZANOWSKI: The Copyright Office has said over and over again, it's totally legal to engage in these repairs. But good luck trying to find the tools that will actually let you do it.

CRONIN: IFixIt, where Shahram works, for instance, sells replacement parts and tools and provides repair guides to help people out. But the Copyright Office's exemptions don't allow third parties to develop or distribute repair tools. That would require legislation to change. States and companies are coming up with their own repair solutions. In the last year, Colorado, New York and Minnesota each passed repair bills. And Apple and Samsung expanded their repair programs.

Brittany Cronin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brittany Cronin
Brittany Cronin covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business desk.