Will John Deere Finally Get Their DMCA Comeuppance?

When it comes to activism, there are many different grades of activist aside from the few who you may encounter quietly and effectively working for change in their field. There are the self-proclaimed activists who sit in their armchairs and froth online about whatever their Cause is, but ultimately aside from making a lot of noise are pretty ineffectual. Then there are the Rebels With A Cause, involved in every radical movement of the moment and always out on the streets about something or other, but often doing those causes more harm than good. Activists can be hard work, at times.

If you are within whatever Establishment that has aroused the collective ire it is not the screamers and banner-wavers that should worry you, instead it is the people who are normally quiet. When people who spend their lives getting things done rather than complaining turn round en masse and rebel, it’s time to sit up and take notice. If people like the farmers or the squaddies are on the streets, the probability of your ending up on the wrong side of history has just increased exponentially and maybe it’s time to have a little think about where you’re going with all this.

The video below the break follows a group of Nebraska farmers fighting for the right to maintain their farm machinery, in particular the products of John Deere. Since all functions of a modern Deere are tied into the machine’s software, the manufacturer has used the DMCA to lock all maintenance into their dealer network. As one farmer points out, to load his combine harvester on a truck and take it on a 100-mile round trip to the dealer costs him $1000 every time a minor fault appears, and he and other farmers simply can’t afford that kind of loss. We’re taken to the Nebraska State Legislature and shown the progress of a bill that will enshrine the right to repair in Nebraskan law, and along the way we see the attempts by lobbyists to derail it.

We normally write Hackaday stories in the third person, but it’s worth saying that this is being written from a small farming community in Southern England, and that there is a green and yellow tractor parked outside somewhere. Thus it’s from first-hand experience that you can be told that Deere is in danger of becoming a damaged brand among its staunchest supporters. They still make damn fine tractors, but who wants to be caught with brief weather window to get on the land, and a machine that’s bricked itself? It’s hardly as though Deere are the only manufacturer of agricultural machinery after all.

This video is quite important, because it is a step towards the wider story becoming more than just a concern to a few farmers, hardware hackers, and right-to-repair enthusiasts. The last word should go to one of the farmers featured, when he points out that all his older tractors are just as capable of going out and doing the same day’s work without the benefit of all the computerized technology on their modern siblings.

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Retrotechtacular: Farming Implements in 1932

Few people would deny that farming is hard work. It always has been, and it probably always will be no matter how fancy the equipment gets. In 1932, farming was especially grueling. There was widespread drought throughout the United States, which gave rise to dust bowl conditions. As if those two things weren’t bad enough, the average income of the American farmer fell to its lowest point during the Depression, thanks to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

Even so, crop farming was still a viable and somewhat popular career path in 1932. After all, knowing how to grow food is always going to get you elected into your local post-apocalyptic council pretty quickly. As such, the John Deere Equipment Company released the 19th edition of their classic book, The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery. This book covers all of the various equipment a crop farmer needed to get from plough to bounty. The text gives equal consideration to horse-driven and tractor-driven farming implements, and there’s an entire chapter dedicated to tractor engine maintenance.

According to its preface, this book was used as an agricultural text in schools and work-study programs. It offers a full course in maintaining the all the (John Deere) equipment needed to work the soil, plant crops, cultivate, harvest, and manure in all parts of the country. The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery was so well-received that John Deere kept the book in publication for over thirty years. The 28th edition and final edition came out in 1957. We wonder why they would have stopped putting it out after all that time. Maybe it wasn’t profitable enough, or the company decided to phase out the shade tree tractor mechanic.

So why should you delve into a sorely outdated textbook about farm equipment? Well, it’s straightforwardly written and easy to learn from, whether you’re trying or not. You should check it out if you’re even remotely curious about the basics of farming. If for no other reason, you should go for the beautiful hand-drawn illustrations and stay for the interesting tables and charts in the back. Did you know that a gallon of milk weighs 8.6 pounds?

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The Icon Of American Farming That You Now Have To Hack To Own

If you wanted to invoke American farming with colour, which colours would you pick? The chances are they would be the familiar green and yellow of a John Deere tractor. It’s a name that has been synonymous with US agriculture since the 1830s, when the blacksmith whose name appears on the tractors produced his first steel plough blade. The words “American icon” are thrown around for many things, but in the case of John Deere there are few modern brands with as much history to back up their claim to it.

A trip across the prairies then is to drive past Deere products in use from most of the last century. They will still supply parts for machines they made before WW2, and farmers will remain loyal to the brand throughout their lives.

Well… That used to be the case.  In recent years a new Deere has had all its parts locked down by DRM, such that all maintenance tasks on the tractors must be performed by Deere mechanics with the appropriate software. If your tractor breaks in the field you can fit a new part as you always have done, but if it’s a Deere it then won’t run until a Deere mechanic has had a look at it. As a result, Motherboard reports that American farmers are resorting to Ukrainian-sourced firmware updaters to hack their machines and allow them to continue working.  An icon of American farming finds itself tarnished in its heartland.

We’ve reported on the Deere DRM issue before, it seems that the newest development is a licence agreement from last October that prohibits all unauthorised repair work on the machines as well as insulating the manufacturer from legal action due to “crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software”. This has sent the farmers running to illicit corners of the internet to spend their dollars on their own Deere electronic updating kits rather than on call-out fees for a Deere mechanic. Farmers have had centuries of being resourceful, this is simply the twenty-first century version of the hacks they might have performed decades ago with baler twine and old fertiliser sacks.

You might ask what the hack is here, as in reality they’re just buying a product online, and using it. But this is merely the latest act in a battle in one industry that could have ramifications for us all. Farmers are used to the model in which when they buy a machine they own it, and the Deere DRM is reshaping that relationship to one in which their ownership is on the manufacturer’s terms. How this plays out over the coming years, and how it affects Deere’s bottom line as farmers seek tractors they can still repair, will affect how other manufacturers of products non-farmers use consider DRM for their own business models.

Outside the window where this is being written is a Deere from the 1980s. It’s a reliable and very well-screwed-together tractor, though given the subject of this piece it may be our last green and yellow machine. Its dented badge makes a good metaphor for the way at least for us the brand has been devalued.

Thanks [Jack Laidlaw] for the tip.

Ask Hackaday: Fixing Your Tractor Could Land You Behind Bars

It’s 9AM on any given Sunday. You can be found in your usual spot – knee-deep in wires and circuit boards. The neighbor’s barking dog doesn’t grab your attention as you pry the cover off of a cell phone, but the rustling of leaves by the back door does. Seconds later, several heavily armed SWAT officers bust in and storm your garage. You don’t have time to think as they throw your down on the cold, hard concrete floor. You’re gripped by a sharp stinging pain as one of the officers puts his knee in the square of your back. Seconds later, you’re back on your feet being lead to the back of an awaiting police cruiser. You catch the gaze of one of your neighbors and wonder what they might be thinking as your inner voice squeaks: “What did I do wrong?”

The answer to this question would come soon enough. Your crime – hacking your dad’s tractor.

“That’s like saying locking up books will inspire kids to be innovative writers, because they won’t be tempted to copy passages from a Hemingway novel.”

-Kyle Wiens

John Deere is trying to convince the Copyright Office that farmers don’t really own the tractors they buy from them. They argue that the computer code that runs the systems is not for sale, and that purchasers of the hardware are simply receiving “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”

In order to modify or “hack” any type of software, you have to copy it first. Companies don’t like the copying thing, so many put locks in place to prevent this. But because hackers are hackers, we can easily get past their childish attempts to keep code and information out of our hands. So now they want to make it illegal. John Deere is arguing that if it is legal for hackers to copy and modify their software, that it could lead to farmers listening to pirated music while plowing a corn field. No I am not making this up — dig into this 25-page facepalm-fest (PDF) written by John Deere and you’ll be just as outraged.

Trying to keep hackers out using the DMCA act is not new. Many companies argue that locking hackers out helps to spur innovation. When in fact the opposite is true. What about 3D printers, drones, VR headsets…all from us! The Copyright Office, after holding a hearing and reading comments, will make a decision in July on whether John Deere’s argument has any merit.

Let us know what you think about all this. Can hackers and the free market learn to live in harmony? We just want to fix our tractor!

Thanks to [Malachi] for the tip!