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?
For the past few years now we’ve covered a long-running battle between American farmers and the manufacturers of their farm machinery, over their right to repair, with particular focus on the agricultural giant John Deere. The manufacturer of the familiar green and yellow machinery that lies in the heart and soul of American farming has attracted criticism for using restrictive DRM and closed-source embedded software to lock down the repair of its products into the hands of its dealer network.
We last visited the Nebraska farmers a couple of years ago when they were working towards the bill reaching their legislature. The Bloomberg piece brings the saga up to date, with the Nebraska Farm Bureau failing to advance it, and the consequent anger from the farmers themselves. It’s interesting in its laying bare the arguments of the manufacturer, also for its looking at the hidden aspect of the value of the data collected by these connected machines.
It’s likely that the wider hardware hacker community and the farming community have different outlooks on many fronts, but in our shared readiness to dive in and fix things and now in our concern over right to repair we have a common purpose. Watching these stories at a distance, from the agricultural heartland of the European country where this is being written, it’s striking how much the farmers featured are the quintessential salt-of-the-earth Americans representing what much of America still likes to believe that it is at heart. If a company such as John Deere has lost those guys, something really must have gone wrong in the world of green and yellow machinery.
As anyone who has been faced with a recently-manufactured household appliance that has broken will know, sometimes they can be surprisingly difficult to fix. In many cases it is not in the interests of manufacturers keen to sell more products to make a device that lasts significantly longer than its warranty period, to design it with dismantling or repairability in mind, or to make spare parts available to extend its life. As hardware hackers we do our best with home-made replacement components, hot glue, and cable ties, but all too often another appliance that should have plenty of life in it heads for the dump.
It’s never been harder to repair your electronics. When the keyboard in your shiny new MacBook dies, you’ll have to send it to a Genius. When the battery in your iPhone dies, you’ll have to break out the pentalobe screwdrivers. Your technology does not respect your freedom, and this is true all the way down to the source code: the Library of Congress is thankfully chipping away at the DMCA in an effort that serves the Right to Repair movement, but still problems remain.
The ability — or rather, right — to repair will inevitably mean using electronics longer, and keeping them out of the garbage. That’s less e-waste, but it’s also older, potentially slower and less powerful portable workstations. This is the question: how long should you keep your electronics running? When do you start getting into the false economy of repairing something just because you can? What is the minimally viable laptop?
This year’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) triennial review (PDF, legalese) contained some great news. Particularly, breaking encryption in a product in order to repair it has been deemed legal, and a previous exemption for reverse engineering 3D printer firmware to use the filament of your choice has been broadened. The infosec community got some clarification on penetration testing, and video game librarians and archivists came away with a big win on server software for online games.
However, the new right to repair clause seems to be restricted to restoring the device in question to its original specifications; if you’d like to hack a new feature into something that you own, you’re still out of luck. And while this review was generally favorable of opening up technology to enable fair use, they didn’t approve Bunnie Huang’s petition to allow decryption of the encryption method used over HDMI cables, so building your own HDMI devices that display encrypted streams is still out. And the changes to the 3D printer filament exemption is a reminder of the patchwork nature of this whole affair: it still only applies to 3D printer filament and not other devices that attempt to enforce the use of proprietary feedstock. Wait, what?
Finally, the Library of Congress only has authority to decide which acts of reverse engineering constitute defeating anti-circumvention measures. This review does not address the tools and information necessary to do so. “Manufacture and provision of — or trafficking in — products and services designed for the purposes of circumvention…” are covered elsewhere in the code. So while you are now allowed decrypt your John Deere software to fix your tractor, it’s not yet clear that designing and selling an ECU-unlocking tool, or even e-mailing someone the decryption key, is legal.
Could we hope for more? Sure! But making laws in a country as large as the US is a balancing act among many different interests, and the Library of Congress’s ruling is laudably clear about how they reached their decisions. The ruling itself is worth a read if you want to dive in, but be prepared to be overwhelmed in apparent minutiae. Or save yourself a little time and read on — we’ve got the highlights from a hacker’s perspective.
Here at Hackaday, we write for a community of readers who are inquisitive about the technology surrounding them. You wouldn’t be here if you had never taken a screwdriver to a piece of equipment to see what makes it work. We know that as well as delving inside and modifying devices being core to the hardware hacker mindset, so is repairing. If something we own breaks, we try to work out why it broke, and what we can do to fix it.
Unfortunately, we live in an age in which fixing the things we own is becoming ever harder. Manufacturers either want to sell us now hardware rather than see us repair what breaks, or wish to exercise total control over the maintenance of their products. They make them physically impossible to repair, for example by gluing together a cellphone, or they lock down easy-to-repair items with restrictive software, for example tractors upon which every replacement part must be logged on a central computer.
This has been a huge issue in our community for a long time now, but to the Man In The Street it barely matters. To the people who matter, those who could change or influence the situation, it’s not even on the radar. Which makes a piece in the British high-end weekly newspaper The Economist particularly interesting. Entitled “A ‘right to repair’ movement tools up“, it lays out the issues and introduces the Repair Association, a political lobby group that campaigns for “Right to repair” laws in the individual states of the USA.
You might now be asking why this is important, why are we telling you something you already know? The answer lies in the publication in which it appears. The Economist is aimed at politicians and influencers worldwide. In other words, when we here at Hackaday talk about the right to repair, we’re preaching to the choir. When they do it at the Economist, they’re preaching to the crowd who can make a difference. And that’s important.