The Uneasy Case of Programmed Obsolescence

52 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2021

Date Written: 2020


This article is an attempt to understand the context of how the concept of programmed obsolescence emerged and evolved to slowly make its appearance in today’s legal landscape. Programmed obsolescence is generally understood as the engineered, premature
breakdown of a product to trigger its replacement by its own maker. This essay, first phase of a four-year project, aims at describing the genealogy of the concept of programmed obsolescence. The ambition here is to revisit common places of obsolescence, from its acceptance in Bernard London’s famous pamphlet to the popular tale of the reduced life of the light bulbs. The history and early manifestation of programmed obsolescence tells a compelling story about consumption and the contradictions of capitalism. To keep the wheels of the economy turning and workers active, more goods must be purchased. Innovation and competitive consumption are thought to be conditions of progress. Programmed obsolescence seems to bring the question of
durability to another level which goes beyond the jurisdictions of consumer law and
its policy objective of informed choice and of commercial law. By being indissociable
from obsolescence, the production of waste becomes a matter of environmental law
and brings to the fore social concerns. Until obsolescence became associated with
environmental concerns, the law did not develop the antibodies for a phenomenon it
generally perceived as legal.

Keywords: obsolescence, intellectual property, waste, consumer law

JEL Classification: B2, B31, 033, O34, 035, O38, N32

Suggested Citation

Moyse, Pierre-Emmanuel, The Uneasy Case of Programmed Obsolescence (2020). Available at SSRN: or

Pierre-Emmanuel Moyse (Contact Author)

McGill University - Faculty of Law ( email )

3644 Peel Street
Montreal H3A 1W9, Quebec H3A 1W9


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