When something on the farm breaks, you fix it. Even in our fast-paced world where things are discarded and replaced, that’s how we do things in the country. And that attitude is precisely what Montana’s Senator Jon Tester hopes to support with his right-to-repair legislation.
This is a huge issue that’s developed over the last decade or so. In the past, tractors and other farm equipment were all mechanical. As long as farmers or repair services understood how equipment worked, they could easily diagnosis and fix them. They didn’t have to be licensed or certified. And replacement parts were available from the manufacturer or third-party suppliers.
But today’s tractors are a lot more tech savvy. They come programmed with software (think computer programs) that operates the tractor and all its technological parts. That’s how a planter tells the tractor operator that it’s out of seed. It’s how the combine calculates average yields as the farmer harvests. And it’s how we connect to GPS systems. These are all really great advances and drive modern agriculture’s efficiency and sustainability.
The problem is that equipment manufacturers want to protect that software, and they’re taking it to the extreme. John Deere, the world’s largest agricultural manufacturer, holds a copyright over the tractor’s software. According to the company, when a farmer purchases a piece of high-tech equipment, the farmer doesn’t own the tractor, he or she just gets an implied license to use it. That allows John Deere to control who can run diagnostics on the equipment, who can repair the equipment, and who can produce replacement parts for it. Each of those actions usually requires a person to copy the program to fix it (hence copyright).
Another thing: John Deere says it owns all the data collected by its tractors and equipment. And that’s a lot of information–average yields, rates of pesticide applications, the location of every field, and a bunch more. Farmers often utilize that information to make business decisions. So John Deere’s data collection essentially gives them rights to the farm’s secrets. John Deere then sells that valuable data.
It isn’t hard to imagine the difficulty this causes farmers. Equipment breaks down with use, which causes delays during crucial times of the year. Because John Deere limits repairs to certified dealers, there’s a lot of demand for those services. Sometimes a licensed repairman isn’t available for days or weeks, even though time is of the essence. Third parties can’t make parts, so if John Deere is experiencing a shortage, so is the farmer in the field (a problem that recently came to fruition). And there’s a monopoly on these services and parts, so the prices continue to rise.
Oh, and if John Deere decides to stop producing parts or servicing your equipment, then you’re out of luck.
That brings us back to Senator Tester’s right-to-repair legislation aimed at curbing the stranglehold by manufacturers. AGDAILY summarized the legislation’s high points and the proposed requirements on manufacturers:
- Make available any documentation, part, software, or tool required to diagnose, maintain, or repair their equipment.
- Provide means to disable and re-enable an electronic security lock or other security-related function to effect diagnostics, repair, or maintenance.
- Permit third party software to provide interoperability with other parts/tools, and to protect both the farmer’s data and equipment from hackers.
- Ensure that when a manufacturer no longer produces documentation, parts, software, or tools for its equipment that the relevant copyrights and patents are placed in the public domain.
- Ensure parts are replaceable using commonly available tools without causing damage to the equipment, or provide specialized tools to owners or independent providers on fair and reasonable terms.
- Return data ownership to farmers. Manufacturers currently collect and sell all the data generated by farmers, and this data is the farmers’ “secret sauce” for how they conduct their business.
It sounds like a really strong start. I have no idea whether it has a prayer of passing though. But even it doesn’t pass, it’s clear the right-to-repair movement is gaining traction. And that can only fuel further legislative action in the future.