Right To Repair: Tractor Manufacturers Might Have Met Their Match In Australia

The simmering duel between farmers and agricultural machinery manufacturers over access to the software to unlock the DRM which excludes all but the manufacturer’s agents from performing repairs goes on. How this plays out will have implications for the right to repair for everyone on many more devices than simply tractors. Events so far have centred on the American Midwest, but there is an interesting new front opening up in Australia. The Aussie government consumer watchdog, the ACCC, is looking into the matter, and examining whether the tractor manufacturers are in breach of the country’s Competition and Consumer Act. As ABC News reports there is a dual focus, both of the DRM aspect and on the manufacturer’s harvesting and lock-in of customer farm data.

This is an exciting turn of events for anyone with an interest in the right to repair, because it takes the manufacturers out of the comfort zone of their home legal environment into one that may be less accommodating to their needs. If Aussie farmers force them to open up their platforms then it will benefit all of us, but even if it fails, the fact that the issue has received more publicity in a different part of the world can only be a good thing. There are still tractor manufacturers that do not load their machines with DRM, how long will it be we ask before the easy repairability of their products becomes a selling point?

There are many stories relating to this issue on these pages, our most recent followed the skirmishes in Nebraska.

Thanks Stuart Longland for the tip.

Header image, John Deere under Australian skies: Bahnfrend (CC BY-SA 4.0).

60 thoughts on “Right To Repair: Tractor Manufacturers Might Have Met Their Match In Australia

    1. Reading too much Adam Smith, I suppose. It only works when the market can expand infinitely, to be allow an unbound number of new players. In our sad finite universe, monopolies are a fact of life.

      1. Oddly there isn’t a monopoly in the world of tractors, in that while the big names have to a large extent grouped together there is a huge tractor manufacturing capacity elsewhere in the world that doesn’t lock down its parts with DRM. They sell into Western markets and they make machines of the size and type that Western farmers want, but the names such as Deere still dominate.

        Why is this? I suspect it’s the innate conservatism of the farming community, they’ve always bought JD, Case, MF etc, and it will take a seismic event for them to look at a machine from Korea, China, or Japan. The JDs of this world know this, and they know that customer loss will be glacial. Maybe eventually this will persuade farmers to look elsewhere.

        There’s a parallel in the world for fork lift trucks. My friend in that business tells me the Far Eastern models they sell (IIRC it was Komatsu?) do very well selling to customers of the “quality” brand they also deal with. A customer buys the quality brand as their first forklift, gets their fingers burned on the parts DRM, and then “no DRM on parts” becomes a major selling point in their second forklift purchase decision. But companies operating forklifts don’t share the innate conservatism of farmers.

        1. Buying something just for the sake of “this is what I have always bought” is usually a fairly bad reason to buy something.

          Everything has a cost of ownership, that includes buying the thing to start with, and then upkeep and maintenance, and even its capabilities partake in the cost of ownership.

          Ie, tool A might be good to start with, while tool B might be better long term. And tool C might be better since it also replaces tool D that takes up space in one’s shed. Though, if tool C is a pain to service, then maybe tool B and D are a better combo compared to C?

          But in the end, buying something just for the sake of tradition isn’t even considering the above.
          Unless one stands at the hardware store about to buy a new drill. One knows one got a bunch of batteries from brand X, their drill is a bit more expensive, but one has the chargers, batteries, and other tools that use them too. So is the other company’s drill really a better offer? (one can though still be on the more expensive brand and suffer from it, so maybe one should switch, but who knows about 3-5 years down the line, then it might be the other way around! And it isn’t like all these tool brands are owned by the same conglomerate in the end, so it’s a monopoly wearing a disguise!)

          1. A farmer takes a huge risk in buying strange off-brand machinery, because their business depends on the machine and the established brands have spare parts and repair manuals widely available. If the tractor breaks during harvesting season, they don’t have the time to order in parts from overseas – if the seal for the hydraulic valve isn’t in the local hardware store, the crops may be lost.

          2. [Luke] is right,
            but I would like to add, that (at least a couple decades ago) Deere fuel filters worked on multiple models, so having more than one Deere in your “stable”, meant you could have a stock of consumable spares that worked on all of them.
            Now WHY Deere had such a “goofy” fuel filter…

          3. Haven’t looked at the new JD stuff lately but the simple reality is that farmers are dragging tons of steel through soil and stone. Simply standing behind a line of tractors of various brands at a fair and comparing the size of the steel comprising the rear lift section will give you an idea why JD (farm size equipment) is a favorite. Going to an auction of old farm tractors will also show you the results of this. Many of the other brands will have welded, twisted or broken lift arms while the JD will barely look different from new. Those old farmall, ford, IH etc all have their places, but most were never built for the long term endurance of older JDs. No I don’t currently own one! My 1955 IH and 1967 Cub work fine for my “tinkering” but on the small family farm I grew up on the JD with only 10 more horsepower than the IH weighed 2x as much and was a true beast! (that we could fix easily on the rare occasion anything broke)

          4. let JD keep the new tractors on there lot foe 5 year and they will change there mind you can buy an old 4020 for 10000 and rebuld in you beak yard you can make it like new for 9000

        2. Sticking with a single brand is usually a matter of standardizing your tools. You don’t want to be the only guy in town who has Komatsu while everyone else is driving Deere, because the parts and service supply becomes patchy. If you and your neighbor have the same kind of tractor, you can interoperate: your tools fit, your appliances fit, and he might even have a spare part or two.

          1. Right. For the type of vehicle I wanted, everyone was always trying to convince me that I should look at Subarus. Yes, Subaru had two models and trims that sounded perfect and needed comparing, but I wasn’t going to buy a Subaru. Subarus are perfect though! Was the cry, yes, probably, but I’m not buying one. The nearest dealer was 2 hours away or so. Which pretty much makes a simple service an all day event, and $500 tows in prospect if it can’t be driven. I think even Porsche and Lambo had official dealers nearer me. Since that time however, 2 new Subaru dealerships have opened, 20 and 40 mins away. So now Subarus could come under consideration…. if my automotive tastes/wants hadn’t changed in the meantime… (“It’s like rayayaain on your wedding day….”)

          2. I totally disagree with you. JD manufactures (or more rightly) has manufactured for them many of their parts overseas. Every farmer worth his salt has the tools to fix any tractor foreign or domestic. Heck most tractors now days are a mix of standard and metric. I’m in the middle of JD country in Texas but I see a vast mix of IH, New Holland, Techmahindra and JD. Some of the old guys buy JD because the always did. They also vote Republicand because the always did and so did their fathers. But the younger generation here is more concerned about the business of farming and the costs, part availability, and time to repair. Most of the electronics components that go out on the JD tractors (and I’ve heard a lot about this happening) are not locally available. So the farmer is out of luck when his $100K plus tractor is sitting there when he needs to be cutting hay. They get pretty owly. I’m hearing a lot from the yournger farrmers that JD is overpriced and overrated these days and the other dealers are doing very well.

        3. My father has worked in the fork lift truck industry for around 40 years now. He’ll fix anything for his customers, but he’ll only sell relatively few brands.
          A while back he setup a small business with investment from OM Pimespo to be their authorised dealer for the area. After some years Komatsu and OM Pimespo merged and Komatsu brought corporate shenanigans with them, they decided that my father wasn’t qualified to be the manager of the business he’d setup in the area. Well… my father wasn’t happy with that, so he left that company, setup another with his own savings and some investment from the bank. Pimespo/Komatsu no longer have a business in that area.

        4. I have a LS 50hp tractor. It started as a LG Montana branded but they went out of business, however I still get service from LS and part no problem. This tends to be a story in the ag community for other tractor manufacturers. They tend to be rebranded versions of LS and others. Mahindra is one exception. When my neighbor went to buy a new tractor, he bought an LS because he liked mine so much even though he has JD’s. LS does not put in DRM. I am totally against DRM. But many farmers are really not aware of DRM and the implications of it. Same goes for combines.

        5. Its because of money and risk. The lockin means the manufacturers and the stores including in a parts and services role make money. If the customer went to the store and they said ‘buy this one, with these limitations and artificial ongoing costs, or this one for 30% less up front, and more than 50% less ongoing… we’ll help you maintain both and service them equally in our shop if you need it’ everyone would buy the other option. When it comes down to buy it from an unknown store and your on your own for servicing, the risk of being out of action whe its needed for a large crop is too great. Pay the money, limit the risk.

    2. It is beyond my belief how anybody assents to buying equipment which comes with “if you don’t pay us (daily/monthly/weekly) we will see to it that it quits working and you can’t use it.” Whether it is a $450 failover router, a $45,000 earth station modem, a half million dollar harvester or a $30,000 car all of these maintenance lockdown equipment should be regarded as long term undependable crap. The con with each is that they are “industry leaders whose technology is unreachable by competitors”. Each of these companies is only one merger or acquisition from being eaten by a competitor or overextended by investments and delisted out of business at which point their maintenance cloud doesn’t work and the harvester in the barn won’t start and you can’t make it start.
      Or some CEO wheeler-dealer who decides their quarter and stock divedends would look better if they would triple maintenance fees on all the farm equipment. What are the farmers to do? It’s only an increase of thousands on farm implements they paid hundreds of thousands for….
      Please explain that to my friend in Mulvane KS who replants seed wheat from this year’s crop with (among other things) a 1954 Farmall Super A that works as well today as the the day it was bought.
      The “maintenance contract or doesn’t work” business models should be legislated or boycotted out of business. It represents a huge risk to sustainable non corporate family farming in America.
      IMHO.

        1. Ever been to Kansas? I’m aware. A normal farm is 5 miles with wheat stalks all within a height of a quarter inch of each other over the full field so dense its hard to stand up and where fistfights break out at the County Fair over who won blue ribbon for the wheat. Big machines big knowledge and complete independence from desire for corporate tentacles. The “Amber waves of grain”, really sometimes from horizon to horizon. These farm tools are long term investments and need to last much longer than whatever current pop culture value added service and maintenance model exists in the locked down plans and probably longer than many of these companies will exist.

          1. I think what he meant was there is a difference between the Farmall and a real tractor. The Farmall is what he will use in 15 years to pull the real tractor out of the barn.

          2. A “farmall a” is a small old tractor (although very cool). They are highly prized on small and hobby farms. The tractors this article is talking about are massive industrial pieces of equipment. It’s like comparing the 3D printer in your garage to an injection molding machine making 100s of parts and hour and going “see they both make plastic things and I can fix the 3D printer without going to the vendor so it is better.”

          3. andrew:
            Yes. fair description. The point made is these are really important machines that are needed to be long term productive and the coupling of the equipment to a closed factory maintenance with no possibility of 3rd party support you automatically tie future use to the whims if mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcy and short sighted management decisions. The reason the Farmall is even still around is because of third party support and ability to be constantly maintained on the farms over the decades. IMHO the factories should be focused on making the equipment more serviceable instead of less and in 20 years the equipment will have the same exceptional reputation it has carried for over a hundred years.

    3. Your post starts with what you are missing “in an ideal world” we don’t live in one. Thats why neither utopian communism nor utopian capitalism work. What works is mixed solution, some times social solutions are better sometimes free market is better but what main aim of any country should be is to provide its citizens with best quality of life, not biggest paychecks to corporation owners.
      Letting corporations to run free and get too big ends up in best scenario with crap like this in worst in crap like Boeing or Prudue Pharma when profit chase kills people.

      1. There’s different ways to go about creating such “mixed solutions”. The method used today around the world in all social democracies is to play whack-a-mole through regulation, which is a system where you write your laws in such broad ways that it allows the government to make arbitrary rules regarding the market without further democratic scrutiny. This creates a state too powerful to ignore by the corporations, which promptly take over and start using the power to regulate to their own advantage.

        It is not give than the “middle way” will work to your advantage.

  1. Thanks, Jenny, for the insight. This is a phenomenon that I watch (as a free software fan, some might call me a zealot) in the software world too: proprietary alternatives sometimes get the mindshare although they definitely treat their customers worse [1]. So I try to understand that.

    And oh, @deshipu: I’m not a market radical, far from it. Free market is a theoretical model which is too far from practice to be useful, IMO.

    [1] Sometimes the proprietary alternative /is/ better, at least short term, but this isn’t always so!

    1. >although they definitely treat their customers worse

      It’s rather that they can afford to treat their customers worse because they have the mindshare, because they offer synergy benefits and better usability, better features, etc. compared to the alternatives. The free software offers freedom, but when the software in itself compares like a penny farthing to a motorcycle, you have to be in denial to wonder why it happens.

      1. If specialized software is required to maintain the equipment, at the prices they charge for the equipment, it should be provided free of charge with whatever specialized maintenance computer that is required. If the manufacturer decides to upgrade future models and software and the equipment owner decided to stay with the purchased version then so be it, but the equipment should be able to be used and maintained *and supported* by the manufacturer or third parties to the version received at the time of purchase. The model where a manufacturer can send you an email extorting money from you for services or upgrade on a previously purchased item or upselling you proprietary “licenses” to access hardware functionality you already bought as mandatory should be illegal.

        1. I think Tomas was referring to free software in general, rather than tractors in particular.

          I’ve found that about half the time people who criticize the “free market” and proprietary software along these lines are doing so because they can’t compete with a substandard offering whose greatest merit is that it’s free as in beer – so they’re calling sour grapes. E.g. Photoshop vs. Gimp vs. Affinity vs. etc. Adobe is ripping you off with subscription based software pricing, but none of the alternatives are as good, so they can do that. Even as you’re using some cheaper alternative, you’re looking back and sighing at how much easier it would be on PS, or shaking your fist telling yourself this 10 step process is much better because of reasons…

          The free market is offering the better product, but you just can’t afford it, so it’s not useful to You. Therefore the question is, if the open source model is more optimal, why can’t they make it better? Because the moment they do make something better, their work and expertise becomes worth money, so the people who are making it close the source and start selling it. If they didn’t do it, other people would.

          That goes back to the tractors: if there’s no competition, the contracts tend to turn in favor of the seller. The problem isn’t in how brands make their software or don’t – it’s the fact that they’ve cornered the market so well that they can pull off tricks like that. You may try to ban this behavior, but as long as the fundamental issue isn’t solved, they’ll pull off other tricks to get around you – and that’s also why “managed capitalism” and full-on socialism in general never works in the long term. After some initial success, the people who abused you as businesses shift to become the government and continue to abuse you.

  2. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as our consumer watch dog is also going after Google and Facesbook in attempt to make they pay for content sources from Australia. We suspect it will go down the path of google and fecesbook will just not use Australian sources content. And the likes of JD and Co will just stop suppling to Australia – we are a rather insignificant market on the global stage.

    It’s a nice try and we should be allowed to fix our stuff and when we pay for something We should Own it not lease it.

    1. Australia would be better off not having DRM JD stuff at all. Better JD pull out of our tiny market and keep their DRM infested *it to America – who for god knows what reasons seem to lap it up!

  3. “This is an exciting turn of events for anyone with an interest in the right to repair, because it takes the manufacturers out of the comfort zone of their home legal environment into one that may be less accommodating to their needs.”

    Shouldn’t be a new thing for any company that desires being multinational. e.g. vehicles.

  4. I understand the American farmer’s affinity to an American made American brand. But at some point the job has to be done as cost effective as possible. Pressed farmers these days can’t afford to pay for patriotism. And from the manufacturer’s perspective, if the negative press and fall-off in consumer demand out-weighs the positive benefits of DRM on soft components, it becomes a pure economic decision. If an Asian company can make a tractor with similar reliability and lower total cost of ownership, it generates more pressure on JD and others than any government regulation could. My $.02

  5. It wouldn’t surprise me if this model eventually comes to automobiles. Just look at what happened to the car stereo. Every one is custom. They all want a monthly fee. This cancer could easily spread to the rest of the car.

    1. I love egging on the salesman when he starts talking up the Sirius radio etc, get him into the value building, agree with everything he says, then go “So there must be a $2000 or so credit for ordering radio delete right?”

    2. It is already there. Mercedes makes a work truck virtually identical to a doge, yet anytime anything goes wrong (very often at the low end of 70K miles!) it has to be towed to the dealer, stays for a month (with the dozen other identical trucks parked at the service department), and costs a fortune. The first mechanic we took it to wants to be able to work on anything and searched for equipment to be able to service it. Not available outside of dealers.. This is the modern Microsoft licensing method taken to vehicles. You don’t own the software and any hardware with our software on it belongs to us to do with as we see fit. Shame. JD is (was) an American institution, building some of the heaviest duty, and reliable equipment made for the price point, With exceptional part support. RIP JD…

    3. Why shouldn’t it come to everything, with IOT coming, it’s the perfect business model, pay and when we tell you pay again, it’s like Wannacry installed in everything you buy, it’s not ransomware, it’s a feature.

    4. In Australia, it /is/ already applied to automobiles. Any qualified mechanic can work on your car without impacting manufacturer warranties, and manufacturers have to make any required service tools/software available. Parallel imports are specifically allowed; an “official distributor” cannot guarantee a monopoly, if another importer can find an international source willing to ship.

      1. Mercedes tried to fight the government on the technical info and IIRC the Aussies banned Merc from importing until they completely back down. That was in the mid 90s. The Aussies are good at saying it like it will be and not backing down.

  6. Perhaps there is a place for Hackaday peeps to come up with open source control computers/ECU’s etc.

    Keep buying the Deere’s MF’s (sic) etc, but rip out the proprietary gizmos and replace with aftermarket boards.

    Kinda like what happened in the ’80’s with ECU’s that got modded and/or replaced in cars, culminating with Speeduinos and Megasquirts and the like.

    1. I have considered getting into this/ joining such a project. I don’t know of any–hopefully another commenter can share if they do? One of the challenges is the variance from machine to machine. As another fellow in the thread mentioned, emissions may be a concern? But it was my understanding that equipment which is not operated on public roads is not subject to the same restrictions.
      Of course, I also lack a tractor. Haha

    2. Making a replacement ECU (electronic control unit) that deals with the A/C, or hydraulics, or whatever can be done *without ever* touching the ECU (engine control unit). Although that one is by far the biggest PITA… I can see it now, air filter not replaced on the dot of 1000 hours. Engine won’t start. Persistance counter (which counts attempts to start) equates to dollars charged by the stealership.
      Next it will be small explosive charges built in to the ECU that trash the entire board if you attempt to start when a “fault” (air cleaner change 1 hour overdue) occurs.
      Or less obvious, the flash memory is simply erased.

  7. This is a stupid way to make money grow up let the people work on if it breaks or loose before it breaks. Fighting is stupid I bought it I work on it at I get someone to. JD wake up

  8. The political winds in Australia are blowing in the direction of self sufficiency due recent disruptions, so I can’t see things going well for companies that are fans of DRM and IP abuse.

  9. I work for a small manufacturer in Aus and our experience has been that ACCC can be either toothless or easily swayed. Occasionally they do good for the Australian people though. An example of them failing would be when our super market duopoly (77.1% in 2005) managed to temporarilly convince ACCC that a third major player in the market (ALDI) would somehow be anti-competitor and bad for consumers. That eventually got overturned though.
    But fancy hearing something like Apple and Microsoft talk about competition and not assume they have a vested interest?

    1. Back in the 1980’s, in the USA, Coke and Pepsi had the supermarkets sign “Calendar Market Agreements” (CMAs) which gave Coke and Pepsi each a 25 week preference (in placement and adverts) leaving 3rd party beverages (ahem, Royal Crown) only 2 weeks a year for placement or adverts.
      I’m not sure what the current marketing tactics are in use.

  10. It’s lovely all these people commenting on using old tractors that don’t have drm etc. The reality is for most broad acre farmers in Aus nowadays they are not powerful enough or reliable enough to be commercially viable to use. Couple that with the modern guidance packages (self steering and auto productivity managers etc) and implement controls running on isobus or other proprietary protocols and you need modern tractors or combine harvesters with their multiple control modules and various firmware packages that all need to stay in sync. The right to repair is important but a lot of stuff does require access to software tools for updates and calibration even just for simple diagnostics. Simply we need the modern equipment and it would be nice to have the right to repair it and access to the tools to do so. We do fix a bunch of stuff now without that access but we rely on our dealer to help us when we need anything less mechanical done.

    1. Although it is a hypothetical, what would happen to the locked down equipment sold in Australia if the vendor pulled out and shut down the dealer maintenance? (because the dealer network is gone)

      1. Then we don’t have access to parts anyhow. A lot of stuff can be done without reprogramming using external tools. Once it’s all working and it’s all setup initially there is little need to reprogram things. To me it’s almost like buying a perpetual license to a piece of software. You know it’s good for a period of time and then depreciation kicks in, the reliability and productivity goes out the door, the new version is sufficiently more efficient that you are ready to move on. Especially in the case of a combine harvester.

  11. Im commenting as both a mechanic and an Aussie.
    Australia is a big place with a small population. A farmer doesnt just buy a brand that he has always bought. He usually buys from a dealer that is close because parts availability is an issue. In the US you can pretty much get next day delivery anywhere. Here you could wait a fortnight in some places, or if in the outback even longer. I used to have a transport company, and on long distance runs, eg Melbourne to Perth, it was a 3.5 day drive each way, over the Nullabour which is a desert. If you break down, the quickest way to get parts is a helicopter in some places, and you would want to be driving a brand that has one, like Mack or Kenworth. A fancy European or Japanese truck might be great in metro areas, but not otherwise. Same in the outback. And if you decide to take a 4WD and explore the outback, it had better be a diesel toyota, becuase getting petrol or parts for anything else can take days. So whatever dealer is relatively close to the farmer is usually the brand he goes with. In semi-rural areas there are plenty of brands, but the further you go out, the less brands you see. Your nearest neighbour might be hours away, so even having the same brand as them might be a consideration. In outback areas a station might be cut off for months, so they keep parts on hand and you dont want to have to keep multiple brands because that costs more money in parts. If you need a dealer mechanic to come out, that might take days, and things like internet access arent always available. So you want something that you or your local mechanic can fix.
    When it comes to cars, Australia has one of the most diverse markets with manufacturers from Europe, Japan, Korea, the USA and China and India all selling here. But its a small market, so parts is an issue as well. Toyota has the largest network of dealers, so they sell more vehicles, especially in the rural areas. And vehicles in these areas need to be reliable and tough. Basic also is good. The mines use a lot of what look like basic models, with interiors that have no carpet and few comforts. Because of the distances we also tend to do huge mileage so reliabiity is crucial. I specialise in Euro cars and exotics, and its not unusual to have to wait weeks for parts. We have right to repair legislatiuon, which is great, but that doesnt mean that its free. For some vehicles it can cost a couple of hundred per day to access dealer level information, then yiu still need the relevant scan tools. GM has pulled out of Australia, Mazda is cutting back dealers, Ford and Toyota have stopped local production. Thankfully we have a good range of OEM quality aftermarket parts available, because parts is and will be a big issue.
    Because we are a small population, we get whatever stuff is just sent here, and are reliant on overseas trends. Hybrids and electric cars may be great in other parts of the world where you can drive an hour in any direction and be able to charge up, but that doesnt work here. I live in a major regional town about 120km (70m) from Meklbourne, and people often commute to Melbourne to work each day. I know of many people who make a 80 mile trip to work and back every day. When I had the transport company, our local trucks averaged 350 to 800 km trips per day. So not only are charging points an issue, but range is a big issue. Now add in weather that in summer can hit in the 40s (centigrade) and below freezing in winter, dust from unsealed roads etc, and the life and range of current electric vehicles drops. Our fuel quality is below that in the US and Europe as well. Its a tough environment outside of the major cities!
    I had a fleet of Mack trucks, which included Mack Midlums, a Renault made smaller rigid truck. We had a visit from some Renault and Mack executives from Europe, and they were amazed at the mileage on our trucks. On these small trucks we would do 1 million km in 2.5 years. The Renault execs said that they never envisioned that their trucks would ever do this. In Europe yiou can drive for a day and go through 3 countries. They found it hard to comprehend that we could cover such huge distances. They did a story for an internal magazine in which I was quoted as saying that if any vehicle we bought from a small van up to a large truck couldnt do 1 million km with little more than regular servicing then it wasnt a good vehicle. In practice we would usually see 500k to 800k from vans and small utes, 2 million plus for small rigid trucks and 3 million plus for prime movers before needing major work (Mack and Cummins engines easily did this. Note that Ford Transit vans didnt).
    So back to the topic. Right to repair is wonderful, but it also needs to be cost effective and timely. It also needs to be able to be accessed easily. Requiring a stable internet connection in a rural or outback area may not be feeasible. And farmers as well as transport operators, even people living outside of metropolitan areas all need access to parts as well.

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