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Nothing DRMs Like a Deere: Why Farmers Can’t Fix Their Own Tractors

Brad Merrill 23-06-2015

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 What Is the Digital Media Copyright Act? Read More (DMCA) — which made it illegal to circumvent a copy-protection system (known online as digital rights management or DRM What Is DRM & Why Does It Exist If It's So Evil? [MakeUseOf Explains] Digital Rights Management is the latest evolution of copy protection. It’s the biggest cause of user frustration today, but is it justified? Is DRM a necessary evil in this digital age, or is the model... Read More ) — 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 Concerned About Copyright? A Guide For Legally Using Images On The Web Copyright is a complex subject. A fair amount of understanding makes it easier. If you're wondering under what circumstances you can use someone else's creative work -- expect some answers here. Read More :



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

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  1. Allan
    September 16, 2016 at 8:08 pm

    I am intimately familiar with this subject, I am a engineer currently working on a $400,000 + machine that cannot (or at least is much more difficult) be fixed without access to the CANBUS (actually Parker Hydraulics proprietary version of CANBUS called ICAN). All valid points and good discussion, but completely misses the point as does the article. Understandable as it is a very esoteric point. The whole copyright thing is just a ruse used by the greedy manufacturers. There is no reason to allow access the the proprietary code.

    What the mfg needs to do is write a service script that runs over their implementation of CANBUS (or whatever) and allow the end user to use it to fix their machines. Manufactures could at their discretion allow enough access to fix the machine without disclosing the underlying algorithms or allowing access to alter code. Exercise the I/O, look for module faults, run diag routines, etc. Farmers have little interest in re-writing the software, but when machine goes down it can quickly become a very expensive problem. The machine needs to be used at the right time to do the right things or crops suffer potentially to the tune of millions of dollars. This farm is over 40,000 acres, it is big business. And you cannot run farms like this without the latest and best equipment. There is currently over $10 million dollars worth of equipment on this farm.

    The real issue here is why do the manufacturers not provide the tools to allow fixing? This is really not a copyright issue at all! The answer is of course money. They want to drive the service revenue. In our case a tech has to come over three hours one way about a minimum $1500 charge. Often the tech cannot even come for two or three days. And, they may not even be able to fix it! Across many industries now manufacturers are doing this, claiming they cannot allow end users access due to safety or proprietary reasons but that is a lie... they could write the software to allow the user enough access to fix the machine, but they will not.

    There you have it, my two cents!


  2. robert
    July 27, 2016 at 3:35 am

    Just quit buying their products. Buy and old tractor with no computers.

  3. Anonymous
    June 25, 2015 at 7:09 pm

    So you don't believe in ownership of something you buy. Copyright is just as it says, you don't have rights to copy their stuff doesn't mean you can't modify it for your personal use.

    • Brad Merrill
      June 25, 2015 at 8:15 pm

      Well said, Howard.

  4. Anonymous
    June 24, 2015 at 9:10 pm

    Would you want to hack the software that controls the emission control system in your automobile?

    • mike
      December 10, 2015 at 7:16 pm

      Yes I am qualified and as long as it passes emission standards its fair game

  5. Anonymous
    June 24, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    Modifying software is risky and potentially dangerous when done by people who don't know what they are doing. Now, if there is diagnostic software available (like the kind used with automobiles, ODB II I think it's called), then that could be made available for use by users to help diagnose mechanical problems in tractors, or reset fault codes (you can buy adapters and software to do this from third parties in the USA for cars). I understand that farmers are used to fixing their own tractors, pickup trucks, cars, etc.--they have been doing this for years and years. I don't think they are used to rewriting software. In any case, diagnosing software problems is probably well beyond the abilities of most people, and any such problems should be diagnosed and fixed by the manufacturer through updates, for free, just like Windows is continuously updated and repaired as problems are identified through Windows Update.

    • Anonymous
      June 24, 2015 at 10:38 pm

      I'm guessing, now, you feel free to correct me, but I doubt you can - you're a paid troll for Deere. Amirite? The real point here is that the "owner" of a JD product won't be able to access the software to DIAGNOSE a problem. No farmer is going to want to monkey with the software operating parameters of his or her multi-hundred-thousand dollar piece of equipment. That's idiotic to even try to claim.

      But you want to tell me that when that Check Engine light comes on and a simple computer scan could tell me it's just a $20 CTS (that's "coolant temperature sensor") that's failed, and it would take me 10 minutes to fix it - that's stealing "digital rights"???

      Go screw yourself, Mr Ciszewski.

      • Anonymous
        June 25, 2015 at 3:15 pm

        He didn't want to tell you that and, in fact, didn't tell you that. He said "Now, if there is diagnostic software available (like the kind used with automobiles, ODB II I think it’s called), then that could be made available for use by users to help diagnose mechanical problems in tractors, or reset fault codes (you can buy adapters and software to do this from third parties in the USA for cars)".

        The problem is that John Deere is working in the sue-happy United States. Taking things this far is bullshit, of course, but if they didn't some jackass would modify the software in an amateur and unsafe way, hurt or kill themselves or others, and then sue John Deere. And then people like you would come along and complain about that.

        • Brad Merrill
          June 25, 2015 at 8:20 pm

          I think it would be reasonable for John Deere to have a clear policy stating that modifying the software voids any warranties and transfers the any liability to the consumer, but simply barring people from performing any modification (especially on the basis of copyright) is a bit much.

    • Anonymous
      June 24, 2015 at 11:08 pm

      Kenneth, fact is you don't know what abilities John Deere's customers possess. I know you want only John Deere to be able to work on my equipment and use John Deere parts but that's not the free market.

      I will do what I am capable of doing. If I'm not capable, I'll find someone that is and that might be a 3rd party or John Deere. Anyway, those old tractors wil be kept running for a lot longer than anticipated now.

      • Brad Merrill
        June 25, 2015 at 8:16 pm

        Agreed, J.C.

  6. Anonymous
    June 23, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    I Hate Anything Electronic In Cars Because Of This.


    In My Country, The Law Makes Mandatory For Manufacturers To Supply New Parts For Cars With Less Than 6 Years Old, But Not Older.

    My 1992 ZX Needed A Plastic Exterior Opener For The Front Passenger Door - The Old One Broke, And, For Security Reasons, The Mandatory Yearly Inspection Demanded That Part To Be Replaced.

    CITROEN Could Not Find That ( New ) Part Anywhere In EUROPE - According To This Article I Could Be Screwed.

    So, I Visited A Dump Site Looking For A Car Model Compatible With Mine.

    I Bought A Complete Door For $50 And Got A Cheap Shop To Have The Handle Replaced.

    As Long As Cars With 20+ Years Can Run With The Lead Free Fuels Of Today, And They Pass Mandatory Inspections, You Have A Lot To Choose From.

    I Want To Drive A Car Not An M$ Freaking Computer.


    What Would Happen If That P. O. S. Tractor Manufacturing Company Also Made Cars, And My Story Happened 20+ Years Down The Road, And GOD Forbid, This Car Of Mine Had That P. O. S. Tractor Brand ?


    • Anonymous
      June 24, 2015 at 4:41 pm

      Do you *really* need to capitalize every word ? It makes it very hard to read.

    • Anonymous
      June 27, 2015 at 6:38 am

      It Is Just The Output Of A CHROME Extension.



  7. Anonymous
    June 23, 2015 at 5:14 pm

    You might also want to oppose the general concept of intellectual property rights which would make copyrighting laws a violation of non-intellectual/normal property rights.

    As for passing laws against people because of their motives like anti-competitive ones, that would be a violation of freedom of belief.