Right to Repair Groundswell as Farmers Battle DMCA

Modern tractors, like this John Deere 8235 R, contain sophisticated hardware and software. But farmers are finding that a 1990s era copyright protection law prevents them from repairing them when they break.
Modern tractors, like this John Deere 8235 R, contain sophisticated hardware and software. But farmers are finding that a 1990s era copyright protection law prevents them from repairing them when they break. (Image courtesy of John Deere.)

In-brief: Manufacturers are using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to prevent farmers and heavy equipment owners from repairing their own machinery. But efforts in a number of states are pushing a “right to repair” citing the DMCA’s cost to small business owners and the stifling effect on start ups and potentially new industries. 

Call it the Internet of Farms. Heavy equipment used in agriculture has been getting more and more sophisticated and “intelligent” with each passing year. Modern farm equipment like tillers and combines are now outfitted with an amazing array of sensors and software powered controls that can use satellite data to guide the machine over fields and on board- and cloud based computers to analyze and adapt to different growing conditions and automate operation in ways that maximize production.

But, like any sophisticated, complex, software driven products, modern farm equipment can run into problems: software misbehaves or malfunctions, planned updates go awry, balky sensors deprive a machine of critical data, or report the wrong data and affect performance.

In generations past, broken farm equipment was a fact of life. But farmers are a resourceful bunch and found a way to fix mechanical equipment on their own, or call in a friend or local repairman to do the job. These days, however, that proud tradition is dying thanks to a 1990s era law designed to protect, of all things, the pirating of movies, computer software, music and the like: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Software interfaces are used to operate farm equipment. (Image courtesy of John Deere.)
Software interfaces are used to operate farm equipment. (Image courtesy of John Deere.)

As Wired reported last year, companies like John Deere have argued to government regulators that farmers don’t own their equipment, so much as they are licensees of it. That’s a common notion in the software field, but a stretch for a company selling multi-ton farm equipment. But equipment makers now see the actual hardware as a mere platform for their sophisticated software – software that is protected by the DMCA.

For their part, farmers note that theirs is a time- and weather dependent business and that the strict maintenance covenants of equipment makers like John Deere have driven local repair shops out of business. Now entirely beholden to licensed mechanics to perform even minor or routine maintenance, the farmers complain that they must wait days or longer for a repair person to visit their farm, costing them money.

But farmers aren’t taking this lying down. As this recent article at Capital Press notes, Nebraska is considering legislation requiring manufacturers to make diagnostic, service and technical information available to farmers as well as independent repair technicians. The law would be modeled on a law passed in Massachusetts in 2013 that required automakers to give vehicle owners and independent repair facilities in the State access to the same vehicle diagnostic and repair information made available to dealers and authorized repair facilities.

Supporters of the Nebraska legislation, which failed to pass in a recent session, are gearing up for another fight and collecting stories from farmers and others affected by DMCA claims, including local repair shops that have been driven out of business by the law.  They have the backing of groups as disparate as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Repair.org and IAMERS, the International Association of Medical Equipment Remarketers and Servicers.

John Deere has, in recent years, touted its “Precision Ag” initiative, part of which is to provide farmers with remote support for malfunctioning equipment (think: remote desktop for a combine harvester).

Of course, the travails of farmers isn’t the only area where an over broad reading of the DMCA is likely to cause headaches. The same argument can and has been used by automobile and other “connected device” makers to try to lock in profits from repairs and after market parts.

In 2015, the Electronic Frontier Foundation warned that automobile manufacturers were using The Digital Millennium Copyright Act to thwart car owners from repairing or modifying the software running on their vehicles.

Right to repair backers also note that manufacturers broad use of the DMCA threatens to choke off budding businesses that seek to leverage data from connected equipment and smart farms to sell add-on services. For example, start-ups like AgriSync are offering cloud-based software that allows farmers to work with professional technicians to repair equipment problems, leveraging diagnostic data and video from a smart phone or tablet. But the company will have a difficult time providing support in an environment where DMCA restrictions are used to prevent farmers from working on their own equipment.

Source: Farmers Demand Right to Fix Their Own Dang Tractors – Modern Farmer

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