Why Farmers Need to Fight for Their “Right to Repair”

Editor’s note: This post was contributed by Kyle Wiens. Kyle is the CEO of iFixit, the free repair manual. He’s dedicated his life to defeating the second law of thermodynamics, a battle fought in the courtroom as often as in the workshop. The Right to Repair campaign has, so far, successfully legalized cell phone unlocking and tractor repair.


Two years ago, I tried to help my friend Dave fix his tractor. I run an online repair community called iFixit, so people often ask me to troubleshoot repair problems. It takes a little sweat and a little swearing, but I can usually figure it out. But I couldn’t fix my friend’s tractor. And that’s the way John Deere wants it.

You see, Dave’s 5820 Deere isn’t like the one my grandfather use to drive around his ranch when I was a kid. Dave’s tractor isn’t as much a tractor as it is a network of computers on wheels. A failed sensor had triggered one of those computers to shut down Dave’s entire rig, and fixing the issue required access to the computer. That’s ok, because it should have been easy to check a box and tell it to ignore the sensor. But John Deere puts locks over the software, in the form of passwords and encryption, to keep people like me out. That way, if something breaks, only the dealer repair tech can fix the problem.

What’s worse, US copyright law protects John Deere’s repair monopoly. As strange as it seems, computer code is considered artistic work, so it has the same legal protection as the DVD you bought from Target or the song you downloaded from Apple. To stop people from pirating, the entertainment industry started putting digital locks on music and movies back in the 1990s. And in 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act made it illegal for an owner to break those locks for any reason — even repair.

It’s been nearly two decades since the DMCA passed, and the law didn’t do much to deter pirating. But it’s been great at helping manufacturers keep control of their products, even after you buy them. Motorola pioneered the argument that John Deere is using, suing people who wanted to unlock their phones to move them to a new wireless carrier.

But these days, everything contains software. And everything breaks eventually. That’s where the DMCA gets tricky.

If your smart fridge breaks down, or your smart thermostat acts up, or your tractor is on the fritz, those repairs probably require access to the machine’s programming. If so, then tough — you can’t fiddle with it. Only the manufacturer can.

Back when the DMCA was written, lawmakers figured there might eventually be a few legitimate reasons to bypass digital locks. So the DMCA’s writers engineered a way to apply for exemptions to the law. In the past, exemptions have been granted so blind people can enable read-aloud features on encrypted ebooks and so educators can copy bits of movies for use in a classroom. I thought tractor repair should be added to the list, so I enlisted help from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Intellectual Property Law Clinic at USC, and we applied for an exemption for ag equipment.

John Deere didn’t much like that idea. In a comment to the Copyright Office, they said that farmers don’t own the software that makes their tractors work. Instead, Deere said farmers only had “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.” John Deere was claiming ownership of the tractor you already bought and paid for. Which struck me as a bunch of hooey.

Call me crazy, but I think that if you buy something, you own it. And no company should be able to dictate who fixes something you own.

After a year of legal wrangling and campaigning, the Copyright Office agreed. They issued an exemption for the repair of vehicles and farm equipment, which just went into effect. Now you have the Copyright Office’s blessing to tinker with and repair your tractor on your own terms.

It’s a win, but only a partial one. For starters, the exemption only lasts two years. After that, we have to ask the Copyright Office for permission to fix our equipment… again. And the ruling isn’t perfect. As it stands, only an owner, and not their mechanic, can break the lock and access the programming of a tractor.

In the meantime, John Deere is finding other ways to stop owners from fixing tractors, or even looking at the programming that governs them. Just look at Deere’s new licensing agreement. It says that owners can’t modify or reverse engineer “any software, data files, documentation, engine calibration tables, proprietary data messages, and controller area network (CAN) data messages” in the equipment they’ve purchased from Deere. The licensing agreement also says owners may not bypass digital locks over the software — even though copyright law now allows it.

“The new License Agreement is John Deere’s attempt to write its own private law. It’s perfectly legal under copyright law to repair your own equipment, reverse engineer its software, and tinker with it to meet your needs,” says Kit Walsh of the EFF. “But where your rights interfere with manufacturers’ ability to extract the most possible value from you, documents like the License Agreement are the go-to method for them to make your rights disappear.”

John Deere isn’t the only company that resorts to these kind of tactics. Lots of companies make it hard to fix things. For them, it’s about profit. They want to be the only ones with the information, equipment, and ability to repair your stuff.

But consumers are standing up for themselves. Folks in New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Nebraska are trying to pass Right to Repair legislation — laws that would require manufacturers to provide owners and independent repair businesses with fair access to service information and replacement parts. And would go for not just tractors, but for other equipment that breaks too, like computers and appliances. With enough public support, these laws could be passed this year.

I hope so. Because next time my buddy calls me out to help fix a tractor, I’d love to be able to actually do it.

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