Oh, Deere

Most farmers probably think the question of whether they own their tractor or not is a fairly straightforward one.

But technology agreements are casting doubt on machinery ownership following a recent story in a popular technical magazine.

On April 21, WIRED magazine published a column by Kyle Wiens with the headline “We can’t let John Deere destroy the very idea of ownership.”

In it, Wiens, a self-proclaimed digital do-it-yourself tinkerer and service manual expert, said that John Deere — the world’s largest agricultural machinery maker — told the U.S. Copyright Office that farmers don’t own their tractors. Because computer code snakes through the DNA of modern tractors, farmers receive “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.

“It’s John Deere’s tractor, folks. You’re just driving it,” the column stated.

(The 24-page Deere submission can be accessed through the WIRED internet link at the end of this story.)

John Deere communications manager Barry Nelson says he’s been receiving a lot of questions since the WIRED article went online and he offered this rebuttal:

“We want to make it clear. Yes, you buy a tractor from John Deere — you own that tractor.”

Nelson maintains a corporation must be allowed to protect its intellectual property or there will be no incentive to invest in better software.

“That engine software has been programmed for emission standards, overall performance, fuel economy and safety,” says Nelson.

“If the DMC (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) is modified to allow people to legally hack into an engine control system and make changes, then a manufacturer cannot stand behind any aspect of the performance of that engine.”

Numerous manufacturers have made similar submissions to the U.S. Copyright Office.

The submissions are part of an ongoing process to fine tune the DMC Act, the 1998 law governing the line between software and hardware.

Some parties proposed an amendment to the DMC to soften restrictions.

Consumer groups and people like Wiens would like to ultimately see the regulations abolished.

The corporate world is lobbying to keep or strengthen the copyrights.

The Copyright Office is expected to decide in July which electronic copyright sections, if any, will change.

Most electronic equipment that contains software, from televisions and coffee makers to passenger jets, carry a copyright on the software. Tinkering with the internal software often leads to a voided warranty.

Keystone Agricultural Producers president Dan Mazier says he understands why farm equipment manufacturers are protective of their software, but he does not support the copyright laws if that protective action comes at the expense of producers.

He wonders what happens to farmers who want to work on their own equipment.

Some producers say the cost of service and distance to dealers are serious considerations

As well, a lot of farmers want the independence they get when working on their own machines.

“My concern is what happens if you mix brands and they don’t want to talk to each other. That’s why you need that modification ability,” says Mazier.

“There are times when you need to adapt software to what you already have on your farm, for instance when you have an older piece of equipment. It makes things difficult when they have copyright locked down on everything, even older machines. They have to get paid. I get that. But in perpetuity?”

Farmers have the need, the skills and the desire to get into software programs that control the function of their implements, according to independent ag engineer Paul Sheets. Sheets had a large mixed farm in South Dakota, followed by 10 years in the equipment industry, before joining Carbon River Engineering in Wichita Kansas.

“As a producer, I’m very much against manufacturers trying to stop machine owners from working on their own equipment. Farmer independence is very important,” says Sheets.

“If I own a piece of equipment, I want to work on it myself because I know how I have my things set up and adjusted. I want to be able to do that. I don’t want to use the manufacturer’s setup or adjustments.

“I have the computer knowledge and capability to fix or modify this equipment on my own. Provided you can get the right scanner, you should be able to plug into the diagnostic port and figure out what’s wrong and if you have the capability to fix it. And, if I get stuck, I have three kids who are computer savvy, so they can help me.”

Will their JD dealer provide the necessary information so a farmer can work on the digital technology inside their tractor?

“No. Not if it involves computer software,” Nelson says.

“But for the majority of repairs, just like in the past, you still can do all the routine maintenance and even some major things in basic machine repair found in the operator’s manual.

“We have some new tools that make it faster/quicker for a dealer to diagnose an issue using remote sensing. The service department can get right into that machine, even if they’re miles away. We call it remote display access.”

The issue of software copyright ownership may seem somewhat philosophical, especially at seeding time, but it leads to the financial question of who pays to maintain and repair that software this season and 10 or 15 years from now.

If a corporation has legal ownership of the software, should it assume the responsibility for the software maintenance and repair plus any liabilities arising from problems with that software?

“We have a warranty that covers our equipment,” says Nelson. “If there’s any issue with the technology, the customer is covered.”

Kyle Wien’s WIRED article can be found at www.wired.com/2015/04/dmca-ownership-john-deere/

Contact ron.lyseng@producer.com

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