U.S. farmers fight for right to repair

Growers rebuff recent industry proposal to improve service as an attempt to derail right to repair legislation

Farmers buying a new implement face two technological hurdles. First, the electronics are nearly impossible to repair, and second, they may not have the legal right to try fixing it.

To top it off, they may not even own the tractor for which they paid half a million dollars. Some manufacturers argue that they own the intellectual property — in other words, the electronics.

The electronics are what makes the machine function. Without their base code, the tractor will not function. Therefore, say some, the manufacturer still owns the tractor.

According to statements filed at the U.S. Copyright Office by John Deere, computer codes snake through the DNA of modern farm equipment. Farmers simply receive what Deere calls “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”

Several other manufacturers have submitted similar comments to the Copyright Office inquiring into the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a vast 1998 copyright law that governs the blurry line between software and hardware.

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The behaviour and attitude of the ag implement industry have fostered a giant groundswell movement in the United States called right to repair. At the moment, 17 predominantly farming states have right to repair bills proceeding through their legislatures. Nebraska and Washington state have been the leaders in this movement, which seeks to remove the electronic legal encumbrances now imposed on equipment.

Much of the groundwork for this legislation has been co-ordinated by Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association in New York.

“Legislation for fair repair is stalled in committee in Nebraska and there aren’t any pending court actions anywhere in the U.S. of which I am aware. There are class action lawsuits filed in many places against Apple over their battery scandal, but that’s a different issue,” Byrne said in a Feb. 8 email.

“What I can tell you is that 17 states have filed bills for right to repair/fair repair.  Legislative sessions are just starting.   Washington state has moved their Consumer-Electronics Right To Repair bill out of committee. That’s the first hurdle. They might bring their bill to a floor vote in the house by Feb. 14, the next hurdle.   Other states have just started their hearings. I was in Vermont yesterday providing testimony. We think there is a good chance that one or more bills will advance to floor votes this spring.”

She said getting a bill all the way to signature is a series of giant hurdles, but each hurdle becomes easier once others have paved the way. 

For example, if Washington state moves its bill through the house, even if it stalls in the state senate, that will make it easier for other states to advance their bills.

Byrne said ag equipment manufacturers recently issued a statement that they hope will confuse the issue and pacify the right to repair movement. She thinks it may have just the opposite effect by raising the ire of people already upset by the actions of ag manufacturers.

“Trade associations representing manufacturers just announced a set of principles to take effect in five years purporting to allow farmers to fix their own stuff,” she said.

“The manufacturers’ intent is to forestall legislative action.   I don’t think farmers are going to buy into this, but legislators might. 

“When reading the fine print, understand that even in five years they still won’t let farmers actually repair the whole machine, just those parts industry decides can be repaired outside the dealership.  The diagnostics are going to tell the farmer to contact the dealer. Industry is essentially doing nothing but making a show.”

She said the arrogance displayed by industry already annoys farmers. Now imagine the phone calls a dealer gets when a new implement shuts down and sits for days waiting for the dealer to deliver and install the correct digital device.

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