Farmers celebrating copyright ruling in ‘right to repair’ fight

Jason Clay Jansky photo

A John Deere 4020 tractor from the 1970s awaits repair Friday at Ag Pro in Kenedy. The shop services classic and modern equipment, and technicians said the 4020 is one of the most sought-after classic models out there due to its robust build, ease of repair and lack of computerized components.

KENEDY – There are few pieces of farm equipment more iconic than the John Deere 4020. Solid steel. No electronic components. And, best of all, according to some farmers, it’s easy and legal to repair without using an authorized technician.

Now, a ruling by the U.S. Copyright Office issued Friday makes it just as legal for farmers across the nation to access or modify the software that runs their equipment and equipment from other brands like Kubota.

Prior to the ruling, farmers were locked out of their tractors and combines. Any attempt to access its software in a way not authorized by John Deere constituted copyright violation.

But not any more.

Farmers have long been fighting for what they deem as the right to repair. It’s not just producers who were rallying for the cause, either. Many in the tech industry have decried similar practices from companies like Apple, who make it difficult for users to root – or “jailbreak” – their phones.

The exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act now covers devices like phones and tractors. Proponents say it’s a step toward making the property they’ve bought actually their own, much like an original John Deere 4020 would be.

“That’s probably one of the most sought-after tractors they’ve ever made. Even today,” said Wesley DuBose, a repair technician with Ag Pro in Kenedy. “When those tractors were new, they probably cost ... let’s say $8,000 to $10,000. Now? $15,000.”

That’s a high price to command for a tractor that’s 40 to 50 years old.

“Everything is mechanical. You can start the tractor, take the batteries out, and it’ll run. The newer tractors, everything is electrical,” DuBose explained.

Not just electrical, but computerized. Even if a mechanical part on the tractor fails, a technician might need to interface with the software as part of the repair. Interfacing requires proprietary software owned by John Deere, though.

Changing times

“This is one of the computers. There’s three actually on this,” DuBose pointed out Friday at the Ag Pro sale lot. “One of them runs the engine. There’s one for transmission. Some of the fancier tractors ... they have their own computer for the air conditioning system.”

He’s been repairing tractors since before they became 10,000-pound, GPS-enabled computer processors. Over the years, he’s seen his work slowly move away from mechanics toward computer programming.

“When I first started doing this, you take a hammer and a wrench, and you’re good to go. Now, first thing I do when I go out to (repair) a tractor like this, I take the laptop out of my truck.”

The copyright office’s ruling doesn’t force John Deere to share their repair and diagnostic software with farmers. It does, however, allow them or independent repair technicians to develop their own “homebrew” software. They can now use those tools to interface with John Deere equipment without breaking the law.

Victory for farmers

“I can tell you that is absolutely fantastic from the agriculture farmer’s standpoint,” said San Patricio County cotton farmer Bobby Nedbalek. “We need information to be able to repair a tractor. When they have that section reserved, and it does not allow us to work on our tractors ourselves, there’s not a whole lot we can do.”

That’s not to say he and other farmers are eager to crack their knuckles and become tractor hackers, though. Nedbalek said most farmers want to be able to handle small repairs themselves while relying on authorized technicians for the big stuff.

“The main thing is not to undercut the dealer. We’ve got to have a healthy dealer network that can stay in business. It’s just when you get in a bind and need to do that yourself, it’s hard,” he said. “Let’s say we’re in the middle of harvest or some big rush, which we’re fixing to have here when the fields get dry.”

Farmers depend on the cycle of seasons and the weather to plant and harvest, so they’re all out in the fields at the same times of year typically. Those times are when authorized technicians are at their busiest, and Nedbalek said sometimes there’s a line in which farmers have to wait.

Waiting during harvest or planting season can end up costing a farmer quite a bit.

“To have to wait until they can shake a mechanic loose is sometimes very expensive,” Nedbalek said. “They do not have the workforce to fix all those different tractors’ problems in a timely fashion.”

Third-party dealers can now open up a shop without risking legal action, which Nedbalek said could lead to more free-market options for farmers seeking equipment repair.

That’s not to say a tech-savvy farmer couldn’t homebrew his own software solutions, too. The ruling allows for that, as well, though Nedbalek knows many farmers will still need authorized technicians for plenty of jobs.

“Sometimes it’s just not logical for us to do it ourselves,” he said. “It’s better to spend a couple thousand dollars to get it fixed quickly because we’re losing $10,000 if we don’t get it fixed today. Sometimes there’s thousands of dollars an hour at risk.”

Not exactly a piece of cake, though

Bee County farmer Thomas Mengers said the copyright ruling is a step in the right direction, though farmers will still face the barrier of not having access to official John Deere software.

“I think it will be a good thing. But the software to work on it is going to have to be available (or) you’re going to have to use after-market software,” he said. “I know one guy who has software on his computer from (the former) Yugoslavia. I haven’t used him, but I know he’s out there.”

Trading or using John Deere’s proprietary software without authorization is still illegal, which some farmers say will keep John Deere as the go-to source for repairs. And many of them are OK with that fact.

“We want that dealership to do as much business as they can,” Nedbalek said, “But let us work together. We’re partners.”

DuBose said there are plenty of advantages to taking equipment into his shop.

“I can make a recording and actually send it back to John Deere for diagnostics. There’s nothing wrong with these newer tractors. It’s just the times, you know. With cars, it’s the same deal. Emissions had a lot to do with it,” he said.

For the producers who don’t want to need a degree in computer science to repair their equipment on the farm, there’s always the John Deere 4020.

For those that do, though, Friday’s exemption ruling is being hailed as a victory in farmers’ fight for the right to repair.