We’ve been noting for a while how numerous states have been pushing so-called “right to repair” bills, which would make it easier for consumers to repair their own products and find replacement parts and tools. Not surprisingly, many tech companies have been working overtime to kill these bills. That includes Apple, which recently proclaimed that Nebraska’s right to repair bill would turn the state into a nefarious playground for hackers. Opposition also includes Sony and Microsoft, which both tend to enjoy a repair monopoly on their respective video game consoles.
Whether coming from Apple, Sony, or Microsoft, opposition to these bills usually focuses on the three (false) ideas: the bills will make users less safe, somehow “compromise” intellectual property, and open the door to cybersecurity theft.
But it’s easy to lose track of what started the recent groundswell of consumer support for these bills: the lowly tractor.
It was John Deere’s decision to implement a draconian lockdown on “unauthorized repairs” that has magically turned countless ordinary citizens into technology policy activists. A lengthy EULA the company required customers to sign last October forbids the lion-share of repair or modification of tractors customers thought they owned, simultaneously banning these consumers from suing over “crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software.”
Needless to say, most of the company’s customers weren’t particularly impressed by the restrictions, which let companies monopolize repair, but hurt farmers’ livelihoods by forcing them to visit only “authorized” repair shops that may be countless miles away from the farm. As a result, many of these folks have amusingly turned toward using unauthorized tractor firmware pirated and modified in Eastern Europe to free themselves of arbitrary, obnoxious and unnecessary restrictions on what they can do with gear they technically own:
“There’s software out there a guy can get his hands on if he looks for it,” one farmer and repair mechanic in Nebraska who uses cracked John Deere software told me. “I’m not a big business or anything, but let’s say you’ve got a guy here who has a tractor and something goes wrong with it—the nearest dealership is 40 miles away, but you’ve got me or a diesel shop a mile away. The only way we can fix things is illegally, which is what’s holding back free enterprise more than anything and hampers a farmer’s ability to get stuff done, too.”
As a result, tractor owners visit various forums to not only buy pirated and modified repair software, but the cables required to perform diagnostics and install updates. In 2015, we noted how the Library of Congress authorized some vehicle-focused exemptions allowing for this kind of legal tinkering, but saddled the exemptions will all manner of bizarre and unnecessary caveats. Right around that time, John Deere began requiring that farmers sign licensing agreements giving the company the right to sue for breach of contract (they haven’t yet).
Of course, if you ask the company why a “black market” specifically tailored for annoyed farmers has blossomed, you’re simply told there’s nothing to see here, there are no repair issues, and the company makes it perfectly easy for farmers to diagnose issues and repair their vehicles. But actual farmers and folks fighting for right to repair legislation say that’s simply not the case. For example, tractor owners who say they modify their tractors using anaerobic digesters to fuel them with pig methane, say they’re technically violating John Deere’s terms of service:
“They require buyers to accept an End User License Agreement that disallows all of the activities they say are allowed in their statement,” (Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of Repair.org) said. “Deere is a monopolist and has systematically taken over the role of equipment owner, despite having been paid fairly and fully for equipment. Their claims to control equipment post-purchase are inconsistent with all aspects of ownership including accounting, taxation, and transfer of products into the secondary market.”
These farmers also say they’re worried that if a company like John Deere is sold, they could wind up stuck without the ability to modify or repair older hardware they likely made a significant investment in. As a result, these annoyed farmers are the cornerstone of the right to repair push currently winding its way through the Nebraska, New York, Minnesota, Wyoming, Tennessee, Kansas, Massachusetts, and Illinois state legislatures. And the companies fighting these bills simply refuse to publicly acknowledge they’re doing so, which tells you everything you need to know about the “value” these restrictions actually provide.