John Deere, manufacturer of some of the world’s most popular tractors and farming equipment, recently submitted a letter to the U.S. Copyright Office asking it to forbid its customers from modifying the software that operates its machines. The implications here are huge: because of copyright laws, farmers cannot diagnose problems or make repairs on their own tractors.
But what do copyright laws have to do with repairing tractors? Let’s ask John Deere.
Deere: You Don’t Own That Tractor — You Just License It
Six pages into John Deere’s letter to the Copyright Office, the company makes a jarring statement about ownership:
[…] the vehicle owner receives an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle, subject to any warranty limitations, disclaimers or other contractual limitations in the sales contract or documentation.
Over the last two decades, a number of companies have used the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) — which made it illegal to circumvent a copy-protection system (known online as digital rights management or DRM) — to argue that consumers do not own the underlying software of the products they buy.
This claim has been made most commonly about computers and smartphones, though cars and even coffeemakers have recently come into the mix. And because modern tractors are technological wonders, with lots of computer code under the hood, they’re no exception.
Bottom line: according to John Deere, if you strip the DRM off your tractor to modify its behavior or run diagnostics, you are in violation of the DMCA.
iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens explains:
“Product makers don’t like people messing with their stuff, so some manufacturers place digital locks over software. Breaking the lock, making the copy, and changing something could be construed as a violation of copyright law.”
So, if you purchase a tractor and tinker with its software, you are a pirate — even if you aren’t sharing illegal copies of the software. In the eyes of the law, that is.
Deere: A Tractor Is Just Like A Book!
After Wiens’s story got people talking about John Deere’s DRM policies, the company issued a letter to help dealers answer customers’ questions about ownership and copyright:
In the letter, Deere compares its farming equipment to a book, noting that “[a] purchaser may own a book, but he/she does not have a right to copy the book, to modify the book or to distribute unauthorized copies to others.”
You can’t modify a book? Supreme Court attorney Mark Wilson disagrees:
“When I buy a book, I own the physical book and I can do whatever I want to it, short of republishing the content. I can give the book away, I can set the book on fire, I can make notes in the margins, or I can turn it into a lamp.”
Indeed, you can do anything you want with a book, so long as you don’t copy and redistribute the content. Why shouldn’t the same be true of software?
Why This Is Bad For Consumers (Including Non-Farmers)
If you’re six figures deep in a purchase, it’s troubling to hear that you can’t fix your own equipment. In his article, Wiens mentions one farmer — Kerry Adams — who can’t fix an expensive transplanter because he doesn’t have access to the right diagnostic software.
Canadian author and technologist Cory Doctorow, who is working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to strike down parts of the DMCA, spoke to The Globe and Mail about the right to modify products you own:
It used to be that if you bought something and figured out how to get extra value out of it – using an old blender to mix paint; fixing your own car; or ripping your CDs and loading the music in an MP3 player instead of buying it again – that extra value was yours to keep.
In the world of C-11 and the DMCA, all that value is retained by the manufacturer.
Doctorow later notes that it’s “a really bad idea to design computers to disobey their owners.” In a world where so many things in our lives are computers — our cars, our thermostats, our refrigerators, and our tractors — no good can come from locking consumers out with copy protection systems (and strict legislation to back it up).
It makes me wonder — what’s this really all about?
Copyright Or Antitrust?
While John Deere continues to scream about copyright infringement, I can’t help but think there must be anticompetitive motives here. I’m not alone — Mark Wilson also alludes to this:
“Really, this may not be a question of interoperability; third-party products have been proven to work just as well as the manufacturer’s stuff (indeed, the auto parts industry has worked this way for years). Isn’t it more about about revenue streams, eliminating competition, and locking customers in by locking them out of the product?”
If I can’t bypass John Deere’s DRM to fix or modify my own tractor, I’ll have to take it to — you guessed it — John Deere to get the job done. No third-party parts, no third-party repairs, no third-party adjustments.
But it’s piracy we’re concerned about, right?
Here’s What You Can Do
If you’d like to join the effort and help combat the DRM policies of John Deere and other companies, you can tell the Copyright Office to side with consumers when it decides which gadgets can be legally modified and repaired. You may also want to urge lawmakers to support legislation like the Unlocking Technology Act and the Your Own Devices Act.
What do you think about the use of DRM by John Deere and other manufacturers? Is it reasonable for companies to lock users out of the products they own? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Image Credit: Wikipedia