With each passing year, our world becomes dependent on technology and software. Thanks to software, modern cars, trucks, and even tractors have become safer, easier to handle, and more fuel efficient. While that might convince every farmer to update their hardware, an increasing number of farmers are deciding to stick with their old mechanical, non-computerized equipment. This trend may be because they want something to call their own.
While it might be hard to believe, farmers who buy a modern tractor driven by John Deere software don’t actually own their tractor. Well, at least not in the way they think “ownership” works. John Deere — the world’s largest agricultural machinery maker — said that those who purchase a tractor receive an “implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”
Modern tractors run computer code that the purchaser doesn’t really own. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a United States 1998 copyright law, the manufacturer holds the programming rights that makes it run, stripping customers of the right to open, tweak, tinker, or repair their property because they don’t have access to the diagnostic software.
Since the law isn’t reserved to tractors alone, your car, cellphone, tablet, or coffee maker might not be completely yours by law either, so tinkering with the code of these appliances could violate the copyright.
Farmers are not allowed to fix their own tractor. Has the world gone mad?
In 2015, the DMCA caused a lot of commotion, especially among car owners who like to tinker with their car. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — a lobbying group that represents many carmakers including BMW, Ford, and General Motors — spoke out against an exemption in the law that would allow owners to work on their own cars. Luckily, the exemption was upheld, but not for farm equipment.
John Deere has even taken it a step further by redefining tractor ownership through a license agreement for equipment with this embedded software. The agreement farmers are required to sign forbids nearly all repairs and modifications to farm equipment. Furthermore, it prevents farmers from suing Deere for crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, or loss of use of equipment arising from the software.
Since product makers don’t like people repairing their own stuff, some have placed digital locks on the software. Breaking that lock to fix the device or tractor could be seen as a violation of the law, turning tinkerers into pirates. (RELATED: Find more unbelievable, twisted news at Twisted.news.)
“The bad part is, my sense is, these companies are just locking up this technology and increasing the sort of monopoly pricing structure that just doesn’t work for us,” said Brian Talley, a farmer on California’s central coast. “We are used to operating independently, and that’s one of the great things about being a farmer. And in this particular space, they are really taking that away from us,” he added
U.S. farmers are hacking their tractors with Ukrainian firmware
Because John Deere, among other manufacturers, has made it impossible to repair farm equipment, an increasing number of American farmers are hacking their tractor with invite-only, paid firmware. Speaking to Motherboard Vice, Danny Kluthe, a hog farmer in Nebraska, explained that farmers usually do not have the time to wait for a dealership employee to show up when equipment breaks down.
Kevin Kenney, a farmer and right-to-repair advocate in Nebraska, added that a farmer who bought a tractor should be able to do whatever he wants with it. Including making repairs or taking it to an independent dealer for spare parts.
“Deere charges $230, plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out and plug a connector into their USB port to authorize the part,” Kevin noted.
Because even simple repairs are made impossible by the embedded software added to every Deere tractor, many farmers have started hacking their machines with custom Ukrainian software bought on the black market.
What have we come to when we can’t even repair our own machines without facing some kind of consequences?