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A Fight Over Tractors in America’s Heartland Comes Down to Software

Some farmers who own John Deere tractors are using black market code to get around software that restricts how they can repair their equipment.

Farmers who buy John Deere tractors can expect to get a piece of reliable equipment. But when the day finally comes that something breaks down and a repair is needed, they are likely to get a rude awakening: They can’t fix it themselves. At least, not without buying hacked software on the black market that could violate the company’s license agreement.

Such desperate measures are laid out in a new piece on Motherboard, in which several farmers talk about their grievances with the iconic tractor maker.

Until recently, it was illegal under U.S. copyright law for anyone other than the manufacturer to tinker with the software that runs the machines. That changed in 2015, when a frustrated farmer and his friend recruited legal help to petition the U.S. Copyright Office to make an exception. It worked, putting a dent in the overriding law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA, as it’s known, was originally meant to stop people pirating music and movies, but has arguably been taken advantage of by an array of companies selling a wide variety of devices with software on them.

Despite the exception, some farmers say that John Deere still keeps tight control over how its customers service their equipment, forcing people to sign license agreements that forbids any kind of independent repairs or modifications.

That has given rise to a black market where farmers and independent repair shops can buy the necessary software. A quote from the Motherboard piece sums up the situation:

"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."

In turn, this has led to the growth of the “right to repair” movement, which is exactly what it sounds like. Angered by what they see as a dishonest business practice, advocates are now calling for laws that would nullify John Deere’s license, and bills are now in consideration in eight states, including Nebraska.

And while the federal law that spawned the mess no longer applies to to tractors, it’s still a thorn in the side of anyone looking to perform their own repairs on a range of popular electronic devices. Changing that will be, as the saying goes, a tough row to hoe.  

(Read more: Motherboard, “How Copyright Law Stifles Your Right to Tinker with Tech”)

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