Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The farmer's fight for the "right to repair"

Corporate giants like Apple, AT&T, and John Deere are up in arms about proposed legislation in eight states this year - legislation commonly known as the "Right to Repair" or "Fair Repair" bills. If passed, these laws will allow consumers and independent repair shops to fix equipment, like iPhones, without being forced to go through the manufacturer. It will also make the diagnostic and service manuals available to the public. Interestingly, farmers are leading the charge to pass these laws. 

When I think about a farmer, I envision a self-sufficient businessman (or woman) who leads a rural lifestyle. Someone who will find a way to make ends meet using the resources at their disposal and fixing things when they are broken - like their own farm equipment. But thanks to intellectual property law, a farmer can't fix one piece of equipment...their own tractor. 

If you are not mechanically inclined - or even if you are - you might assume that today's tractors can be fixed by using the correct combination of wrenches and screwdrivers. But actually they can't. Today's tractors are filled with sensors, wires, and complex computer software (some even have satellite radio!) that require factory passwords and special diagnostic tools to repair them.

Because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), farmers cannot access these passwords or tools without the manufacturer's permission. The DMCA, which is designed to prevent digital piracy, classifies breaking a technological protection on a device's programming as a copyright breach. So if a person changed or modified that programming to fix the equipment, they would be in violation of copyright law. 

Kyle Wiens has written about the difficulties of modern tractor repair and its effect on farming. Wiens is a strong voice for the "Right to Repair" movement and self-identifies as a "computer programmer by training and repairman by trade." In a Wired article, he recounts the experience of trying to help his farmer friend repair a tractor. 
Over my left shoulder a massive John Deere tractor loomed . . . Repair is what I do . . . being rebuffed by a tractor was incredibly frustrating. 
Wiens continues:
I tossed my wrenches and screwdrivers. The conventional tools of my trade had no power here. . . . Armed with wire, alligator clips, a handful of connectors, and a CANbus reader, I launched myself back into the cab. . . . One hour later, I hopped back out . . . Defeated . . . I couldn’t even connect to the computer. Because John Deere says I can't. 
Hearing this tale, you might nevertheless think, so what? I would never attempt to fix my car, my computer, or my iPhone for that matter, on my own. Those repairs should be left to a professional - someone who has training in complex electronic systems. This is the type of argument that manufacturers hope will persuade politicians as they prepare to fight in the Nebraska, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Wyoming, Tennessee and Kansas legislatures. 

Before "Right to Repair" bills were introduced, activist farmers and repairmen like Wiens worked with nonprofit legal groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation to get a DMCA exemption from the U.S. Copyright Office for agricultural machinery owners. The limited exemption grants owners access to the software to assess, repair, or modify tractor systems. But there is a catch: the exemption only lasts until the next rule-making in two years. 

The main thrust of John Deere's argument is that people who buy tractors do not actually own them. Instead, they are buying an "implied license ... to operate the vehicle[.]" (see their opposition letter to a Kansas bill here). Apple and AT&T's arguments list the myriad safety risks to consumers if they are allowed to fix their own devices. It will be a difficult fight: last year Apple and IBM's aggressive lobbying killed a similar New York bill.

But farmers are not giving up easily. The farming community has been making, building, repairing and tinkering with their equipment for centuries and they would like to keep it that way. Farming equipment is extremely expensive (a new tractor might cost $100,000 to $250,000 or more), and unlike tractors of the past, when a modern tractor breaks down farmers are dependent on dealers and technicians to repair them. The added costs of hiring a technician, as well as the time lost waiting for the repairs, can have a real economic impact on a farmer's livelihood. 

The realities of a rural lifestyle exacerbate this problem. As I speculated earlier, farmers value their ability to fix things themselves without relying on or paying for outside assistance. But the repairs can be costly,  and most American farms are quite small. According to the Census of Agriculture75% of American farms grossed less than $50,000 in 2012.

Additionally, many farmers live in small communities where the nearest dealer or technician may be hours away. It could take days for a technician to order the part, get out to the farm, and make the necessary repairs. Some farmers are so fed up with the hassle of repairing modern tractors that they are turning back to older models. 

The biggest issue with the legal restriction is probably the effect it can have on a farmer's crops. A crop's viability depends on the weather. Farmers work when the weather conditions are right, so an equipment malfunction during a crucial time, like planting or harvest, could be disastrous. 

Farmers also argue that tractors are being treated differently from cars and trucks. In 2012, Massachusetts passed a law guaranteeing the right to repair automobiles and trucks, which became national legislation after manufacturers gave up the fight in other states. 

Nebraska activist Kevin Kenny makes a compelling argument from a different lens. He argues that allowing farmers to repair this equipment will promote ag-tech innovation in "Silicon Prairie," a term used to describe the growing tech industry in the Midwest. 

I argue that farmers and mechanics who enjoy "tinkering" and fixing their own equipment should have the right to modify their property as they see fit. The agricultural industry faces unique challenges, as I mentioned earlier, and laws like the DMCA only frustrate a farmer's ability to do their job and maintain their independence - something that is highly valued in their profession. 

Nebraska is the first state to consider the bill this year, and the outcome is especially important because they have a unicameral legislature, which makes it easier for proposed legislation to move quickly. Hearings have already begun, but whether the farmers will prevail in this tangle with big technology remains to be seen. 


ofilbrandt said...

I grew up going to tractor shows and I think people forget that tractors are not small ride-on-top lawn mowers. They literally weigh tons making it impossible to transport them in any conventional way.Additionally, they are very cumbersome. Essentially, theres a reason you get stuck behind that tractor on country roads: they can't be moved any other way.

This was enlightening. Country music, among other outlets, praise the "fixer upper" mentality of rural areas. The ability to fix your own machines is valued and possibly expected so I can see how this sort of impediment is frustrating.

I think it would be neat to see what demographic of farmer this impediment actually impacts at present. Further, does it change consumer decisions? It sounds like it is only the really high end farmer that is able to afford these costly, high tech machines. The smaller farmer may use older tractors that are easier to fix where they have no computer or complex wiring. This saves money on time and repairs. Obviously, having smaller and more out of date tractors comes with issues. This may just be a silver lining to being a small-yield farmer.

Wynter K Miller said...

Despite my status as a non-farmer, non-mechanically-inclined human, I found the outrage of the “Right to Repair” movement incredibly easy to relate to. I recently purchased a vehicle that locks and starts not via a key, but via a fancy contraption called a key-fob. Much to my surprise—and chagrin—key fobs are not only more expensive than traditional keys in terms of hardware, but if you happen to lose your key fob, and happen to consider buying a replacement from eBay, think again! The manufacturer has the codes to program them, and said programming costs at least 6X the cost of what duplicating a modern transponder key would cost (and roughly 200X the cost of what duplicating a traditional key would cost). To put this into tangible terms: it would cost roughly $2 to duplicate the keys for a 1990 Chevy truck; roughly $60 to duplicate the keys for a 2004 Pontiac Montana; and upwards of $400 to duplicate the fob for a 2008 Mini Cooper. All this is to say—it feels a bit like a hostage situation. Farmers obviously depend on farming equipment for their livelihoods; John Deere knows they cannot simply decline to purchase. As such, John Deere is ensuring an involuntary revenue stream for years to come.

You touched upon the issue in your post, but I did a little internet research to put the problem into perspective. If you live in rural Maine—in the town of Weston, for example (see:,_Maine)—the nearest John Deere dealer is over 66 miles away, in Presque Isle, ME (see: Weston is in Aroostock County, which is known for its potato crops (see:,_Maine). Or imagine you’re in west Texas, in Rankin, another sparsely populated town in a county with agricultural roots (,_Texas). The nearest John Deere dealer is over 77 miles away.

Fantastic post. And suffice to say, I’m rooting for the farmers.

Anne Badasci said...

I found this post, and the articles it cites to, completely fascinating. This wasn't an issue I had heard about or ever considered, but reading your post I found myself identifying with the frustration on behalf of the advocates of this bill. I especially was irritated by John Deere's assertion that you don't really "own" your tractor once your purchase it from them. For a farmer to spend several hundreds of thousands of dollars to ultimately hold only some leased intellectual property sitting around the farm, which they use to literally farm with, just seems not only ludicrous but patently false. John Deere (and other companies who adopt this approach) seems to be pulling out all the stops to prevent those who have spent hard-earned money to purchase expensive equipment from maintaining and repairing their investment. Farmers frequently find most of their capital tied up in their farm equipment, and to prevent them from seeking out lower-cost repairs, or even training themselves to do it at home because of the long distance to the nearest dealer that Wynter discusses above, seems outright predatory to me. Like Wynter, I'm rooting for the farmers!

Courtney said...

I had a very similar reaction to Anne. For someone with limited “farm knowledge” this article was still fascinating. I was also taken aback by John Deere’s assertion that farmers do not really “own” their tractors post-purchase. It just seems like modern farmers are really split into two categories. One is the small-medium sized “family” farmer and the other is the massive conglomerate “Big Ag” type of production, and there is no space for anything in between. As “Big Ag” and factory farming take over the industry, almost all ownership is pried away from local farmers. In addition to heavy machinery like tractors, farmers are ever more dependent on buying patented, yearly seeds from the handful of multinational companies that produce them: Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, Dupont, Syngenta ( Although this is a debated issue, it nonetheless demonstrates the larger shift in all agrarian work from small, local farms to larger corporations. ( “A seed is not an invention…patents on seeds are illegitimate.”). If we take away farmers crops, and then their equipment, we might as well take away the land itself because it is useless without the ability to profit from it. I too side with the farmers on this issue.

Mollie M said...

So interesting! I have similar feelings of discomfort that others have expressed regarding this seeming monopoly on essential farming equipment. It feels like a domino effect to me: only allow in-house repairs, control access to their products, and suddenly, no one else can even develop the knowledge or ability to fix this equipment! Since these products now involve complex computers instead of exclusively mechanical componants, it is probable that these tractors couldn't be fixed on site, even if they were allowed to be. At least, not right away; the public, farmers, or specialists would have to develop the knowledge and skills to fix the software programs and develop highly technical knowledge and skills. That is what haunts me the most about this situation, is the right to fix doesn't address the fact that the companies seem to be hiding the knowledge required to fix, too. They have manufactured a situation where people depend on their products and tools, but those people are intentionally kept in the dark about how those tools work. The ban on the right to fix even makes it so that there is no market competition from other groups or companies to repair the products. It feels so manipulative.

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