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John Deere to Farmers: You Own Your Tractors -- Kind Of

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

DRM has reached the farm, according to an article published last month in Wired magazine. John Deere, long-time manufacturer of indispensable farm equipment, argued against a proposed exemption to copyright law made on behalf of John Deere equipment owners -- excuse me, licensees.

Farmers want the legal authority to circumvent software restrictions built into John Deere equipment. John Deere says that's not cool.

Put Down That Tractor!

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) made it unlawful to circumvent a copy-protection system. As originally envisioned, the DMCA anti-circumvention measure would have protected artistic property from copying. Think CDs and DVDs, which in 1998 made publishers and movie studios nervous due to the ease with which perfect copies could be generated.

In the year 2015, no one buys CDs anymore, but they do buy things like tractors and wasteful single-cup coffee makers. John Deere argues that the software that controls its tractors is a copyrightable work and has placed anti-circumvention measures in place. That's not to protect their software from being copied; rather, it's to prevent farmers from servicing tractors themselves, instead requiring them to go through John Deere and only John Deere.

This is problematic for farmers -- who already paid $100,000 for a mid-level tractor -- who have to be able to quickly service a tractor out in the field. It's also frustrating in principle; farmers are rightfully incensed because they thought they bought a tractor!

Turns out not so much. John Deere sent a follow-up letter to customers that's actually fairly riddled with half-truths about copyright law. "Similar to a car or computer, ownership of equipment does not include the right to copy, modify or distribute software that is embedded in that equipment," the letter says. "A purchaser may own a book, but he/she does not have a right to copy the book, to modify the book or to distribute unauthorized copies to others."

We disagree. When I buy a book, I own the physical book and I can do whatever I want to it, short of republishing the content. I can give the book away, I can set the book on fire, I can make notes in the margins, or I can turn it into a lamp. The only difference between a book and software is that there's no way for the publisher to control how I use the book (something that's not true when it comes to eBooks -- and publishers do exercise control over how readers can use the eBooks they've purchased).

It always generates a giggle when the content providers attempt to give one-sided, inaccurate lectures on copyright law, but DRM isn't a joke. As all of our stuff gets increasingly digital -- meaning it contains some kind of software -- companies, eager for more money -- will lock us out of the things we bought in ways that weren't possible before.

Nominally, it's about copyrights, but really, it's about antitrust. You can only buy your tractor parts from John Deere. You can only buy your printer cartridges from HP. You can only buy your coffee pods from Keurig. Really, this may not be a question of interoperability; third-party products have been proven to work just as well as the manufacturer's stuff (indeed, the auto parts industry has worked this way for years). Isn't it more about about revenue streams, eliminating competition, and locking customers in by locking them out of the product?

It may also mean that, as more and more devices control our lives, we won't be allowed, by law, to know how they work and whether they're as secure as they claim to be.

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