Tractor-hacking farmers in the US fight for right to repair under equality law

The days of home tractor repair are coming to an end with machinery technology and tightening intellectual property restrictions meaning farmers are forced to pay big bucks to fix their machinery.

When Nebraska farmer Tom Schwarz bought a tractor he did not realise he would be bound to his John Deere dealer who holds onto intellectual property rights to fix it.

“When you paid the money for a tractor, you didn’t actually buy the tractor … because all of the intellectual property is still theirs,” Mr Schwartz told tech journalist Jason Koebler in a documentary released earlier this month.

“You just buy the right to use it … for life.”

Farmers and independent machinery repairers across the United States are now campaigning for the right to fix their own machinery.

Mr Schwartz had always bought second-hand parts to keep his machinery going, but is now forced to call a dealer because of its software.

“We will put components on tractors. As farmers we don’t like to spend a lot of money so we buy used components if we can,” he said.

“It used to be we’d mount them ourselves and we’d utilise the tractor from that point on.

Farmers hacking their own tractors

In Nebraska, a “fair repair” law is being proposed to allow farmers to repair their own tractor.

If successful, the Right to Repair Act would make it mandatory for companies to disclose their diagnostic software and sell parts.

Journalist Jason Koebler told the ABC that farmers are using software downloaded from Ukraine to avoid the onerous restrictions.

“Farmers are hacking their own tractors. In places like Ukraine and Eastern Europe the software is sold to farmers without the encryption they have in other countries like the United States,” he said.

“So what people in Ukraine are doing is uploading these versions of the software for free online, and people in Nebraska are pirating it and hacking their tractors with it.

The risk for these farmers is that they will break their warranty.

John Deere declined the ABC’s interview request but provided this statement:

John Deere recommends against unauthorised modification of the embedded software code.

The embedded software code is designed and tested to ensure a positive and safe experience for customers.

Manufacturers have invested in developing embedded software code to ensure the equipment operates safely and accurately.

Allowing untrained individuals to modify equipment software may result in equipment that no longer complies with industry and safety standards, or environmental regulations.

Australian farmers ‘don’t get a choice’

Mr Koebler said the fair repair issue extends beyond machinery companies, with firms like Apple and Microsoft taking interest in the Nebraska case.

“It’s also your iPhone. Apple doesn’t sell parts to your iPhone,” he said.

“Companies have been moving towards this model where they sell you something and you end up having to go to a manufacturer for service on that.”

It is already happening to your car in Australia.

The ACCC has found car manufacturers are withholding their technical information and may require them to share with independent manufacturers.

Australian farmers, who have always fixed their own machinery, are keeping a close eye on the US case.

Western Australia farmer Paul Green said Australia might be in even greater need for a “right to repair” movement than the US.

“Australia doesn’t get a choice in the types of engines we get. We just get what the Americans and the Europeans build because the Australian market is just too small,” Mr Green said.

“You have the right to use their tractor and that’s the issue I think.”

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