PLATTSBURG, Mo. (DTN) -- You bought it; you should be able to work on it. Sure, but in these digital days there is a big exception to your right to repair. Many things you buy, including farm equipment, depend on software to function. That embedded code in your cellphone, automobile and tractor doesn't really belong to you. The purchase agreement you signed likely specifies that you only bought a license to use the software in your new equipment. You don't own the code and you don't have the right to repair it or modify it to suit your needs.
In our largely computerized world, that license agreement is a gray zone that society as a whole -- and farmers in particular -- are starting to explore.
It rankles some farmers that the gray zone means they must have a dealer help with some repairs.
"Farmers take a lot of pride in their shops and in fixing their equipment. This hits home," Danny Kluthe, a Dodge, Nebraska, farmer told DTN/The Progressive Farmer.
The federal government has inhabited this gray area since at least as far back as 1996 when Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The law was meant to protect the rights of software innovators and is reviewed and updated periodically.
Recently, states have made forays into the gray zone. As many as 11 state legislatures have discussed Right to Repair laws. Some of the proposed laws -- like those in Kansas and Wyoming -- are specific to agriculture. But most of the proposed laws tackle a basic question facing manufacturers and consumers of all sorts: Do owners of a product powered by software have the right to access and modify the copyrighted embedded code in the product?
State Sen. Lydia Brasch, who farms with her husband Lee in Bancroft, Nebraska, thinks consumers do have a right to that software. This winter, she introduced Nebraska's version of a Right to Repair law. The bill (LB67) would require original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to make available to customers and third-party repair services all the tools dealers possess. This includes software.
Brasch said she introduced LB67 in part because she saw her husband become frustrated with a combine repair he could not make on his own. Instead, he had to rely on his dealer, who was swamped with other harvest repair issues at the time and was slow to come to the farm.
"I love our dealership," Sen. Brasch said. "They are nice people who treat us right. But I don't want them to say, 'You have to come to us. You can't go to anyone else.'"
Kluthe agrees and he drove to the state capitol to testify in favor of LB67. "Time is valuable," he said. "We can't sit in the field and wait for a company guy to come out [to make repairs]... Our hands are tied."
Industry representatives understand the problem. But they say there is a basic misperception about repairs and software.
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"John Deere supports an owner's right to repair his equipment. Period," said Chuck Studer, director of industry relations for the ag and turf division of John Deere. "But we need to remember that 95%-98% of potential repairs on farm equipment don't require software at all.
"In those rare cases where it [a repair] does require a software update or a software replacement ... we make a new copy of that software available to the customer through the dealer at no cost to the customer." There likely will be labor charges from the dealer, Studer said.
Deere and other OEMs understand the Right to Repair movement could strain relationships with some customers. And it is worrisome. "Our legacy and our reputation are driven by our commitment to deliver superior products and customer service," Studer said. "If we don't deliver that experience -- not just for the first owner but for second, third or fourth owner -- our brand value is at risk."
To address the issue, OEMs have adopted new strategies they hope will help ease concerns about digital repairs. Deere, for instance, offers customers the option to use telematics systems that alert a dealer to a piece of equipment's condition. If repairs will be needed soon or are necessary now, a dealer's repair truck can be on the road quickly with the right parts to fix the problem before it causes delays.
To make repairs transparent, Deere offers online technical, diagnostic, parts and operator manuals, Studer said. In newer Deere models, in-cab monitors display problem codes. The owner can look up the code in the manual and make most necessary repairs.
Software, of course, is another matter. If an original version becomes corrupted, Deere will replace it. But if someone wants to change an embedded code for some reason: "We don't feel that modifying embedded code is the right solution for our customers. We think it injects too many risks and we don't think it is needed," Studer said.
Safety is one reason OEMs don't want unauthorized people to have unfettered access to embedded codes.
Today's farm equipment is tremendously complicated; everything runs through a vehicle's computer brains. For example, steering systems today often have no mechanical connections between the front wheels and the steering wheel. It's all controlled by software. The same is true for braking systems and transmissions. Modify the software, and unintended consequences could be deadly. Emissions are also controlled by embedded code. Modify it, and machines could fall out of compliance with the law.
"Deere supports an owner's right to repair their equipment. However, modifying or reverse engineering the embedded software is viewed separate from this because of the risks it poses to operators, bystanders, dealers, mechanics and customers," Studer said.
Brasch, who in addition to her work as a state senator also is a software consultant, disagrees. "When you buy something, it's yours. You should be able to maintain it, diagnosis it and repair it. But with today's [software] technology -- which runs through everything, which we love and we curse -- we are not given that ability to repair or maintain because they [manufacturers] are keepers of the keys."
A WAY FORWARD?
The automobile manufacturers and repair providers are facing similar Right to Repair versus intellectual property rights challenges. Four major industry groups, including GlobalAutomakers, in 2014 signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that might point a way forward for other industries, including the farm equipment sector.
The MOU protects OEMs' intellectual property rights, but states manufacturers "will make available for purchase by owners and independent repair facilities all diagnostic repair tools incorporating the same diagnostic, repair and wireless capabilities that such manufacturer makes available to its dealers."
Although it does not mention software or embedded code, the MOU does put new repair tools in the hands of non-dealers. That could go a long way to granting owners the repair abilities some now feel they lack.
In this scenario, if software goes bad, a repair shop can diagnose the problem and order a replacement code just as it now can order any part to make a repair. But owners and repair shops can't rewrite or modify the code.
Although Deere is not a signatory to the automotive MOU, Studer said it agrees with the general idea: "We truly do support customers' right to repair their equipment."
Still, he adds, the company opposes LB67 and legislation like it because the company "doesn't think that legislative action is the best solution. It can have unintended consequences. Let the marketplace provide a more perfect answer."
Brasch, meanwhile, stands by her bill, in part because the issue of the Right to Repair in the digital age is so broad: "It's beyond tractors. On farms we do not live on an island, we are part of the world economy."
LB67 and the automotive MOU are part of a marketplace versus legislation debate that is just now forming. For farmers and machinery manufacturers, "this is part of a long conversation that the industry needs to go through," Studer said. "It is dependent on all the parties being transparent and communicating well."
Jim Patrico can be reached at email@example.com
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