The fight for our right to repair the stuff we own has suffered a huge setback.
As anyone who repairs electronics knows, keeping a device in working order often means fixing both its hardware and software. But a big California farmers’ lobbying group just blithely signed away farmers’ right to access or modify the source code of any farm equipment software. As an organization representing 2.5 million California agriculture jobs, the California Farm Bureau gave up the right to purchase repair parts without going through a dealer. Farmers can’t change engine settings, can’t retrofit old equipment with new features, and can’t modify their tractors to meet new environmental standards on their own. Worse, the lobbyists are calling it a victory.
Kyle Wiens is the cofounder and CEO of iFixit, an online repair community and parts retailer internationally renowned for its open source repair manuals and product teardowns. Elizabeth Chamberlain is a writer for iFixit and a professor of technical writing and rhetoric at Arkansas State University.
The ability to maintain their own equipment is a big deal to farmers. When it’s harvest time and the combine goes kaput, they can’t wait several days for John Deere to send out a repair technician. Plus, farmers are a pretty handy bunch. They’ve been fixing their own equipment forever. Why spend thousands of dollars on an easy fix? But as agricultural equipment gets more and more sophisticated and electronic, the tools needed to repair equipment are increasingly out of reach of the people who rely on it most. That’s amplified by the fact that John Deere (and the other equipment companies represented by the Far West Equipment Dealers Association) have been exploiting copyright laws to lock farmers out of their own stuff.
Repair is a huge business. And repair monopolies are profitable. Just ask Apple, which has lobbied over and over against making repair parts and information available to third-party repair shops. That’s why Big Ag has been so reluctant to make any concessions to the growing right-to-repair movement.
At first blush, last week’s deal between the Farm Bureau and the equipment dealers might look like a win for farmers. The press release describes how equipment dealers have agreed to provide “access to service manuals, product guides, on-board diagnostics and other information that would help a farmer or rancher to identify or repair problems with the machinery.” Fair enough. These are all things fixers need.
But without access to parts and diagnostic software, it’s not enough to enable farmers to fix their own equipment. “I will gladly welcome more ways to fix the equipment on my farm. Let’s be clear, though, this is not right-to-repair,” explained San Luis Obispo rancher Jeff Buckingham. “At the end of the day, I bought this equipment, and I want everything I need to keep it running without relying on the manufacturer or dealer.”
There’s also nothing new in the agreement. John Deere and friends had already made every single “concession” earlier this year, and service manuals had already been available to purchase. They must have read the writing on the wall when California’s Electronics Right to Repair Act was introduced in March. Right-to-repair bills have proved overwhelmingly popular with voters—Massachusetts passed its automobile right-to-repair bill in 2012 with 86 percent voter support.
Just after the California bill was introduced, the farm equipment manufacturers started circulating a flyer titled “Manufacturers and Dealers Support Commonsense Repair Solutions.” In that document, they promised to provide manuals, guides, and other information by model year 2021. But the flyer insisted upon a distinction between a right to repair a vehicle and a right to modify software, a distinction that gets murky when software controls all of a tractor’s operations.
As Jason Koebler of Motherboard reported, that flyer is strikingly similar—in some cases, identical word-for-word—to the agreement the Farm Bureau just brokered. The flyer and the agreement list the same four restrictions:
- No resetting immobilizer systems.
- No reprogramming electronic control units or engine control modules.
- No changing equipment or engine settings that might negatively affect emissions or safety.
- No downloading or accessing the source code of any proprietary embedded software.
These restrictions are enormous. If car mechanics couldn’t reprogram car computers, a good portion of modern repairs just wouldn’t be possible. When you hire a mechanic to fix the air-conditioning in a Civic, they may have to reprogram the electronic control unit. When electronics control the basic functions of all major farm equipment, a single malfunctioning sensor can bring a machine to its knees. Modifying software is a routine part of modern repair.
Prohibiting modifications to systems that might affect emissions also means that farmers can’t upgrade tractors to meet new requirements. This could force farmers to buy new equipment when emissions standards change—an insidious move toward planned obsolescence.
That’s why a national group of farmers has been fighting for their right to modify software. Together, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Farmers Union are working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to petition the US Copyright Office to exempt farm equipment from the anti-modification provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which has been bafflingly stretched to cover tractors and combines (equipment manufacturers claim they’re worried about piracy). The petition explains:
It is necessary to access the electronic control units to diagnose and repair a malfunctioning agricultural vehicle, as well as to lawfully modify the functions of a vehicle based on the owner’s specific needs in cultivating his or her land.
There are many farmers modifying their equipment to fit their land’s needs. Members of the farm equipment electronics community Farm Hack have designed custom 3-D-printed seed rollers, programmed Arduinos to consolidate greenhouse operations, and developed all kinds of sensors and warning lights. A group of university students at Cal Poly is working to reverse-engineer John Deere’s software protocol. And a third-party company called Farmobile makes a device that plugs into all different kinds of large farm equipment so farmers can access their data without going through John Deere.
Where California farmers go, the rest of America follows—and in this case, that’s dangerous. The state produces more food by far than any other in the nation, accounting for two-thirds of all US-grown fruit and nuts. By agreeing to the spurious distinction between “repair” and “modification,” the California Farm Bureau just made the EFF’s job a lot harder. Instead of presenting a unified right-to-repair front, this milquetoast agreement muddies the conversation. More worryingly, it could cement a cultural precedent for electronics manufacturers who want to block third-party repair technicians from accessing a device’s software.
As a nation of repair advocates, we need to reject toothless deals like this. We must define right to repair in a way that supports the needs of individuals and small growers, not the bottom line of enormous corporations.
This deal is no right-to-repair victory. Don’t let John Deere—or the California Farm Bureau—call it one. Real progress isn’t going to come until a state passes real Right to Repair legislation. And momentum is building. Twenty states, including Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska, considered bills this year. Although none have passed yet, John Deere is clearly feeling the heat.
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