John Deere wants you to know that you own your Deere tractor. Make no mistake about it.
Regarding the software that makes that tractor go? Well, it’s complicated.
Deere drew the wrath of social media earlier this week after an op-ed piece appeared online from the magazine “Wired” titled “We Can’t Let John Deere Destroy the Very Idea of Ownership.”
The article was written by Kyle Wiens, a guy who breaks down various machines and fixes them. He happens to be part of a refurbish-and-repair industry that is in a battle with manufacturers over possible changes in copyright law. The “Wired” article stated that Deere and other companies such as General Motors don’t want to allow people to own the machinery or vehicles they buy, but instead want to license that equipment to buyers for restricted uses. Wiens wrote a similar article last year about cellphones and cars.
The Deere article went viral, so to speak, on social media such as Twitter, as farmers and others questioned the notion that Deere would file copyright claims against them. Other media also picked up the Wired article, which was even rewritten in Spanish.
Barry Nelson, a spokesman for John Deere, told DTN on Thursday that Deere felt the need to address the article and the issues it raised regarding software copyright.
“What Deere wants to be clear about is, No. 1, customers own the equipment they purchase from us,” Nelson said. “That’s the first thing; if you buy a tractor from Deere, you own it.”
Yet, Nelson notes as with automobiles, personal computers, cellphones and other technology, owning a piece of machinery does not grant someone the right to copy, modify or distribute computer code that is now so embedded in all of these daily items.
That technology on a tractor deals with safety, performance and standards such as meeting emission requirements. “We do try to make sure through our dealers and customers to read diagnostics and do anything they need to do for repairs that need to happen,” Nelson said.
But taking out computer chips or software from tractors and selling those is illegal. Nelson equated it to buying a book and then turning around copying it and selling it. “If you buy a book, you don’t have the right to copy the book, modify the book or send copies to other people,” Nelson said.
The Wired piece came from comments Deere filed on intellectual property for proposed exemptions under federal law for technology. Under a 1998 law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the U.S. Copyright Office is required every three years to consider possible exemptions or modifications to the rules to allow for changes in technology. This year, the Copyright Office has list of 27 different proposed classes, which are effectively scenarios or circumstances being considered for new exemptions under the law.
Deere and other vehicle manufacturers filed comments over one of the 27 proposed class exemptions being considered by the Copyright Office. Specifically, Deere has problems with “Proposed Class 21” that involves vehicle software, diagnosis, repair or modification. The proposal would allow people to circumvent copyright protections for computer programs in vehicles for “diagnosis, repair or aftermarket personalization, modification or other improvement.” The exemption would be allowed when agreed upon by the lawful owner of the vehicle, such as a tractor or combine.
Deere argues there are already diagnostic codes available for repair without violating the company’s copyrights in its software. The company’s comments to the Copyright Office state that the proposed rule change “will make it possible for pirates, third-party developers, and less innovative competitors to free-ride off the creativity, unique express and ingenuity of vehicle software designed by leading vehicle manufactures and their suppliers.”
Deere noted proponents of changes in the rule are largely tinkerers and hobbyists who wish to modify software to their choosing.
Regarding ownership, Deere writes in its comments that an owner of a vehicle doesn’t acquire the copyrights to the software and is not the “owner” of the vehicle software to do as they please. Those electronic programs are licensed to the person who buys the vehicle, not owned to modify as they please.
It’s a complicated topic for buyers of almost every modern technology, noted Omaha, Nebraska, attorney David Domina. He’s raised issues in the past about the ownership and licensing agreements for other farm inputs such as seeds. Seed bags contain detailed licensing agreements restricting how the buyer may or may not use the seeds. Domina said this is a similar circumstance regarding software.
“It’s understandable that intellectual property ought to be protected but at the same time not at the expense of eviscerating private ownership,” Domina said in an interview.
Domina said laws could be structured to eliminate the growing expansion of licensing agreements that allow manufacturers to control a product from the beginning of its life to the end. At the same time, such laws could still prevent reproduction for commercial purposes. That would protect the ability to have an “aftermarket” for repairs and allow more competition for those used items.