A draconian license agreement has forced American farmers to resort to hacking their John Deere tractors if they want their farming equipment to keep on working.
Back in October, John Deere required farmers to sign a license agreement that forbids almost all types of repair and modification to farming equipment. Furthermore, this also prevents the farmers from suing for “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.”
“In the old days, you needed a wrench, a hammer, and a pry bar,” engineer Kevin Kenney told Freethink. “Today, they have invented firmware all over these equipment systems, so you’ll need to have software just to get it started, activated, and calibrated.”
The license agreement in question applies to all persons who turn the key or use a John Deere tractor that contains an embedded software. In other words, this forces farmers to resort exclusively to John Deere dealerships or “authorized” repair shops if they wish to repair or otherwise modify any part of their farming equipment.
“If a farmer bought the tractor, he should be able to do whatever he wants with it,” said Kevin Kenney, a farmer and right-to-repair advocate in Nebraska. “You want to replace a transmission and you take it to an independent mechanic—he can put in the new transmission but the tractor can’t drive out of the shop. 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.“
The farmers’ solution to this dilemma? An Eastern Europe firmware that bypasses the required authorization and which is traded on “black market” online forums that function on invite-only, paid access.
Fortunately for the farmers, pirating farm equipment software is not quite illegal according to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. One of the key provisions in this United States copyright law states that unauthorized access to copyrighted works by technologies that circumvent protection systems is prohibited. And as luck would have it, tractors are exempted from this rule since 2015 when the Librarian of Congress approved an exemption to this law that includes land vehicles.
“If a farmer out here through his own ingenuity can fix something, I think he should be able to do so,” farmer Tom Schwarz explained to the daily news platform Freethink. “And bluntly, I think that’s the way it should be whether we’re talking about tractors, cell phones, or computers.”
However, John Deer insists that its customers face no problems related to repairing their equipment.
”Software modifications increase the risk that equipment will not function as designed,” the John Deere company stated for Vice. “As a result, allowing unqualified individuals to modify equipment software can endanger machine performance, in addition to Deere customers, dealers and others, resulting in equipment that no longer complies with industry and safety/environmental regulations.”
Because of John Deere and other manufacturers’ policies, farmers have been facing a major hurdle each time their farming equipment broke down mainly because of these software restrictions in performing “unauthorized” repair on their farm equipment.
Some of these policies have been the ones to ultimately convince most farmers to support “Right to Repair” laws. So far, at least 20 states including Nebraska have introduced this “Right to Repair” legislation, whose goal is to require companies to make parts, tools, and information available to consumers and repair shops so that buyers can choose an affordable method to fix their broken equipment instead of throwing it away or paying huge fees at specific, authorized dealerships.