Editorial: Down on the farm

America’s farmers are used to doing things themselves. They harvest crops, raise livestock, milk cows and bring food and other products to market. And if their equipment breaks, it’s usually up to them to fix it or else risk losing valuable time and money.

This self-reliance includes farmers’ desire to repair their own tractors. But most Americans might be surprised to learn that if a farmer’s tractor breaks down these days, he’s technically prohibited from fixing it, thanks to a frustrating set of copyright laws.

Today’s farm tractors are state-of- the-art machines with air conditioning, GPS systems, satellite radio and countless other sensors and gadgets. Like other modern vehicles, today’s tractors are driven by advanced computer systems. But unlike the computers in consumer vehicles, the computer systems in tractors are protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

So if a tractor conks out, a farmer can’t simply look under the hood to, say, check a system code to determine the problem. Instead, he is required by law to bring the tractor to one of the manufacturer’s service centers to figure out what’s wrong.

Tractor manufacturer John Deere says that farmers — who are the company’s main customers — don’t actually own the software that makes their tractors run. According to a recent piece in Wired, John Deere is concerned that allowing farmers to tinker under the hood would “make it possible for pirates, third-party developers, and less innovative competitors to free-ride off the creativity, unique expression, and ingenuity of vehicle software.”

The company says that copyright law means “the vehicle owner receives an implied license for the life of the vehicle, subject to any warranty limitations, disclaimers, or contractual limitations.”

Farmers across the nation are understandably frustrated. They say they should be able to diagnose and, if possible, do their own repair work. Trips to service centers are time-consuming and expensive. A non-working tractor not only means lost revenue, but as tractor dealerships have closed and consolidated, service technicians have moved farther away — meaning even more wasted time and higher repair bills. As a result, farmers in Nebraska, New York, Minnesota and Massachusetts are urging their states to pass right-to-repair bills.

This is a clear case of well-intentioned governmental policy gone awry. Owners of cars and trucks enjoy the ability to modify their vehicles — farmers should have the same freedom to fix their tractors.

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