The right to repair your own tractor


A few months ago, I went to print some now forgotten document when the HP inkjet that’s been kicking around my house for a decade or more signalled that one of its cartridges was out of ink.

I snapped in a replacement cartridge, purchased off the internet for modestly less than usurious price of a genuine HP cart from staples, and received an ominous message:

Unauthorized cartridge detected

It turned out HP had issued a firmware update that surreptitiously blocked the use of third-party or refilled cartridges. Organizations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation protested, and faced with a mounting public furore, HP eventually relented, issuing a firmware update that undid the block.

You might think this was a case of momentary over-reach by a greedy, customer-hating corporation, brought quickly to heel by mass consumer protest, but guess again. The campaign by giant corporations to control the products they sell you throughout their lifetimes in only just working up a head of steam.

Farmers in the American mid-west are buying cracked versions of the firmware for their John Deere tractors from invitation-only, black marker Ukrainian websites so they can carry out basic repairs without calling in overpriced mechanics from their authorized John Deere dealer.

Farmers have been repairing their own tractors nearly as long as mothers have been baking blueberry pie, but John Deere wants to put a halt to that. Its newest models come with baked-in computer firmware that shut a rig down if anyone attempts an unauthorized water pump replacement or homespun brake job. Said Kevin Kenney, a farmer and right-to-repair advocate in Nebraska:

If a farmer bought the tractor, he should be able to do whatever he wants with it. You want to replace a transmission and you take it to an independent mechanic—he can put in the new transmission but the tractor can’t drive out of the shop. Deere charges $230, plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out and plug a connector into their USB port to authorize the part.”

In a 2014 comment to the U.S. Copyright Office, John Deere said people who buy its tractors don’t own the software that runs them. Instead, they have an “implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.” Not a working tractor—or even a repairable one. Just an implied licence.

A growing right-to-farm movement is lobbying state legislatures to forbid the practice, so far with little success.
Does any of this affect you? You might not be hankering to repair a tractor, but you probably will play any number of videos on your computer today. Cory Doctorow, the Canadian-born blogger, sci-fi writer, and founder of Boing Boing, is waging a so-far lonely campaign against a pending agreement on internet video standards that would embed digital rights management inside the codecs that permit videos to play, a development he calls “weaponized standards.”
DRM isn’t really a technology at all, it’s a law. Specifically, it’s section 1201 of the US DMCA (and its international equivalents). Under this law, breaking DRM is a crime with serious consequences (5 years in prison and a $500,000 fine for a first offence), even if you’re doing something that would otherwise be legal. This lets companies treat their commercial strategies as legal obligations: Netflix doesn’t have the legal right to stop you from recording a show to watch later, but they can add DRM that makes it impossible to do so without falling afoul of DMCA.
The topic is mindbogglingly abstruse, but the podcast Reply All has a pretty clear lay explanation. Listen here, transcript here. (Reply-All, by the way, is a consistently excellent podcast.)
When the US Senate confirms Donald Trump’s appointment of the affable, uber right winger Neil Gorsuch as associate justice of the US Supreme Court, one of the outcomes you can safely predict is that he will stand foursquare for the right of big companies to insert their hooks permanently into the buyers of their products.
No more taking the car to Fred’s Auto Repair. It’s going be dealer-only if Corporate America gets the rights management power it’s increasingly asserting.