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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Federal Law Should Require Online Availability of Instruction Manuals

Congratulations on your purchase of a new consumer product! IMPORTANT: RETAIN THIS INSTRUCTION MANUAL FOR FUTURE REFERENCE. 

Annoying, huh? 

Here is a proposal for a new federal law. It's pro-consumer, pro-safety, and pro-environment. The operative provision would be this:

All commercial manufacturers of consumer products that are sold with instructions, manuals or other such documentation shall permanently label such products with a URL web address where consumers may download copies of the documentation. The Federal Trade Commission shall have the authority to promulgate regulations under this Act and to bring enforcement actions.

This statute would be especially timely for me: I am moving offices. In the photo below, you can see just a small sample of the flotsam product documentation I've come across. Having consumers file and save instruction manuals is absurdly out of date. In fact, only the mythical hero consumer would file and retain a lifetime's worth product documentation. But thanks to the internet, there's a meaningful way to keep product documentation organized and readily available. 

Consumer_documentation The law I'm proposing would unclutter offices and homes. On an individual level, that would be a substantial convenience. But considered cumulatively over several years and millions of consumers, the economic benefit in productivity gained and time saved time would be significant —  more than enough to make a law worthwhile. Online availability would also save trees, reducing the need for the paper and cardboard used in filing, storing and sometimes copying the instructions.

It could also save lives. A recent baby car seat I bought includes a pocket within the seat-back for inserting and retaining the instruction manual. This is fantastic, since missing instructions can lead to a failure to properly install the car seat, which is a serious danger. Having documentation for all products available online would extend this kind of safety factor to tens of thousands of other products.

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on June 23, 2010 at 05:44 PM in Information and Technology, Torts | Permalink

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Comments

A lot of manufacturers already provide online instructions for many things (usually including discontinued products). The bigger difficulty comes from maintaining these instructions online when a manufacturer goes out of business. I am not seeing how the law could help with that problem, since there would be no one to enforce the law against if the manufacturer just goes out of business. And one unintended consequence could be that you eliminate paper manuals, which means that you are counting an awful lot on the manufacturer staying around forever to provide the electronic manual.

Posted by: TJ | Jun 23, 2010 8:47:51 PM

As TJ notes, most manufacturers appear to provide their instruction manuals online. So, I'm not really sure what your gripe is. Have you even checked their websites? (It doesn't seem like it). I can't even recall the last product I purchased that didn't have the manual online. Finally, who really ever needs a manual anyway. Most things aren't that complicated.

Posted by: humblelawstudent | Jun 23, 2010 10:33:26 PM

I don't think we need a law for this. Every time I've looked for a manual online (frequently!), I've found it, even for very old items. In fact, I usually don't bother messing around at the manufacturer's website. I just google the model number of the product and the manual usually comes right up.

Posted by: Hanah | Jun 24, 2010 6:16:39 AM

Here are two other possibilities:

1. Scan the instruction manual. Create a pdf. Save it on your computer. Email it to yourself. Presto, your manual is accessible to you online.

2. Lots and lots of manuals are available at http://www.manualsonline.com/ or other websites. And, after you make a pdf of yours, send it to the site.

The idea that this is a problem best solved by law is a little wacky to me. I don't object to the law in principle; it's just entirely unnecessary, and the times when you are going to want to enforce it will be instances in which it will be impossible to enforce (because it was some little no-name company that went out of business).

Posted by: anon | Jun 24, 2010 8:12:13 AM

Is this satire, or is Professor Johnson sincerely advocating for a nanny state because he can't maintain a simple filing cabinet and/or shoebox?

Posted by: BL1Y | Jun 24, 2010 8:54:13 AM

This proposal seems eminently reasonable. Even if the market currently determines it is economical, and it is a widespread practice to provide much documentation online - who's to say that will always be the case. I think it shows a lack of imagination to foresee a situation in which the conditions which incentivize providing such information online no longer exist or fail to create that incentive. Without a law and subsequent rulemaking process to ensure that such material is available on the internet, it may not be in the future. The usefulness of the proposal depends on its permanence.

Posted by: Matt | Jun 24, 2010 11:37:05 AM

Matt, what you call "a lack of imagination," I call "flexibility to deal with unforeseen situations." A law that fossilizes a status quo is ripe for all sorts of unforeseen consequences. Consider, for example that IBM sells its computer-making unit to Lenovo, and then exits the business (or shuts down altogether). The sensible change is to have the manual go from www.ibm.com/manual/XYZ to www.lenovo.com/manual/XYZ. A law that requires the manual at one address forever does not permit this change. Moreover, url addresses or even the internet itself may become outdated one day. Just remember that a similar sentiment as yours is responsible for the fact that phone companies still kill innumerable trees every year to deliver the paper white pages that nobody uses because of a regulatory mandate -- hey it made sense back in the day, and nobody could "foresee a situation in which the conditions which incentivize providing such information [ ] no longer exist."

Posted by: TJ | Jun 24, 2010 1:09:47 PM

Matt: "Entirely reasonable?" Are you serious?

You think it's reasonable for the federal government to step in and add a new regulation to virtually every manufacturer in the country because Professor Johnson is too incompetent to perform rudimentary life skills?

Honest to God, professor, I will buy you a box to keep your files in and hire an out of work North Dakota Law grad $10/hr to put your instruction manuals into that box for you if that's what it takes for you to learn the difference between a government and a mommy.

Posted by: BL1Y | Jun 24, 2010 3:14:40 PM

I agree with BL1Y. This is laughably absurd. Congrats to Prawfsblawg, for devaluing your website with this nincompoop's drivel.

Posted by: Jack | Jun 24, 2010 7:01:49 PM

As I read the proposed statute, it requires only that the label placed be "permanent"; it does not require a permanent URL. I heartily agree with this statute, as it would prevent manufacturers from providing URL addresses in disappearing ink, a severe problem these days.

Posted by: andy | Jun 24, 2010 7:16:37 PM

Andy, I hope you are being sarcastic. If you are not: What is the point of having a permanent label if it points you to the wrong address? If the label must be permanent, it implies that the address on the label must be permanent as well.

Posted by: TJ | Jun 25, 2010 3:06:31 AM

Yes, I was making a joke based on a literal reading of the statute; to my knowledge, no manufacturer prints its URL address using disappearing ink.

Posted by: andy | Jun 25, 2010 5:20:49 AM

This post exemplifies the liberal law professor stereotype. I suspect, however, that we have been had. Surely this post is satirical.

Posted by: humblelawstudent | Jun 26, 2010 10:03:47 AM

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