It’s fair to say that the hearts and minds of Hackaday readers lie closer to the technology centres of Shenzhen or Silicon Valley than they do to the soybean fields of Minnesota. The common link is the desire to actually own the hardware we buy. Among those working the soil there has been a surge in demand (and consequently a huge price rise) in 40-year-old tractors.
Second-hand farm machinery prices have made their way to the pages of Hackaday due to an ongoing battle between farmers and agricultural machinery manufacturers over who has the right to repair and maintain their tractors. The industry giant John Deere in particular uses the DMCA and end-user licensing agreements to keep all maintenance in the hands of their very expensive agents. It’s a battle we’ve reported on before, and continues to play out across the farmland of America, this time on the secondary market. Older models continue to deliver the freedom for owners to make repairs themselves, and the relative simplicity of the machines tends to make those repairs less costly overall.
Tractors built in the 1970s and 80s continue to be reliable and have the added perk of predating the digital shackles of the modern era. Aged-but-maintainable machinery is now the sweetheart of farm sales. It confirms a trend I’ve heard of anecdotally for a few years now, that relatively new tractors can be worth less than their older DMCA-free stablemates, and it’s something that I hope will also be noticed in the boardrooms. Perhaps this consumer rebellion can succeed against the DMCA where decades of activism and lobbying have evidently failed.
They just don’t build ’em like they used to.
[Image Source: John Deere 2850 by Raf24 CC-BY-SA 3.0]
[Via Hacker News]
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.