Bob Garfield: And I’m Bob Garfield. Once upon a time, here’s how it worked. You bought a thing -- maybe a thermostat or a bag of seed corn or a tractor -- and you owned it. If you wanted to sell it used,you could sell it used. If you wanted to set it on fire, you set it on fire. If it broke you could fix it by any means at your disposal. You could do it, because you owned it.
Ha ha ha. That is soooo analog. Now that we’re in the digital age, and venturing deeper into of the “internet of things,” some manufacturers assert that you don’t actually own the things you buy. You own the hardware, but the software or other patented guts of those things...those you merely license.
Among those manufacturers, John Deere, which says just because you’ve paid $25,000 for a tractor doesn’t mean you have the right to repair it, because that would mean getting into their proprietary software. Which is protected by a digital lock. Which the Digital Millennium Copyright Act says you can’t break.
A bill introduced last month, called the Breaking Down Barriers to Innovation Act of 2015, wants to make it easier for do-it-yourselfers, researchers and others to seek an exemption from that rule.
Kyle Wiens is the CEO of I-FIX-IT, a community-based website of repair guides. He’s also on the Digital Right to Repair Coalition’s board of directors.
Wiens: I have a friend here in San Luis Obispo who is a farmer. And he had a tractor that one day decided to stop working. And tractors these days have fancy computers in the them and it's got a display and the display is showing an error and it gives him a four-digit long error code. And he doesn't know what it is, so he calls up John Deere and they say oh well it's the sensor on your tractor tread that is malfunctioning. And he says well OK can I bypass the sensor and they say no you've got to replace the sensor, we'll overnight it out from the Midwest, it'll take two days to get there.
Bob Garfield: Your friend is not a man of leisure, he's a farmer and he's got like... farming to do.
Wiens: Right. So he says it's no acceptable for me not to run my tractor for the next two days, I have to bypass the sensor. And John Deere says no, the software does not allow you to do that. There's a lot of repairs that farmers can do themselves, when I visited Dave he was changing the oil on his tractor, all eight gallons of it, but when it comes to the electronics there are a lot of things that are locked down. Sometimes it's the legal restrictions that are making it difficult, sometimes it's just a lack of information where manufacturers say no, we're only giving the diagnostic software to our official technicians. And then manufacturers are taking advantage of this, they're using it to build out very profitable service networks.
Bob Garfield: John Deere has an interest in its code not being available to anybody for a hack-for-good purposes, like fixing your tractor sensor, or stealing the proprietary software altogether, black marketing it or what-have-you. So, it's not like their interest in protecting their intellectual property is irrational is it?
Wiens: They're saying that you might pirate the software on the tractor. Well, the software comes with the tractor. So it's not like people are out there selling pirated John Deere pirated DVD's that they're going to give to other farmers, all the tractors come with the same equipment. One of the arguments that John Deere made against this is they said look, these tractors can play music, maybe people will be using their tractor to pirate the latest Taylor Swift album.
Bob Garfield: That sounds like lawyers looking for another bullet point to put in their court brief. But as to the larger issue, it's a thorny one.
Wiens: This is a question of you bought a thing, who has the right to tell you what to do with it? Can you fix it, can you modify it, can you paint it blue. And the problem is that this Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was passed back in '98, gives the control to the manufacturer, takes control away from you the owner of the product.
Bob Garfield: Apart from the question of just being able to repair something that belongs to you, any way you see fit, do these prohibitive laws have any effect on us, as owners or as nominal owners, of various kinds of goods?
Wiens: When you think about people that have been modifying cars, right? The thing that makes America great is that you can get a Mustang, and you can soup it up, you do whatever you want to modify it-
Bob Garfield: Congratulations you've nailed it. That is what makes American great. You've isolated the thing- the ability to soup up a car. That's it!
Wiens: [laughs] It's the one thing! Absolutely. But that culture, I remember taking apart my first computer and thinking wow OK that's how it works, that's what these different pieces are, and that's what inspired me to go into engineering.
Bob Garfield: Ok so what's going to happen?
Wiens: We have to decide to take back our rights. Minnesota and New York have both introduced what they call fair repair legislation where they're working on saying no, we have the right to repair our things, we have the right to the information that we need to be able to fix these things. And then at the same level in Congress, there are three separate bills going right now to try to give people back the right to be able to tinker, modify and repair their things.
Bob Garfield: Seems to me that this situation creates quite a market opportunity for somebody, and that is to build retro tractors that work with you know, mechanics and carboration, and non-digital technology, so farmers don't have to worry about hooking their machines up to computers when they break, all they have to do is replace the drive shaft or you know, the master cylinder or whatever it is that's broken, without fear of being in violation of anybody's license. Anybody doing that?
Wiens: I think that's a reasonable idea. But I think that this is also something that can be addressed, I mean there are a lot of benefits to modern technology. Adding GPS on to tractors allows farmers to be very precise, allows farmers to get better yields out of their land, so I'm not necessarily in the technology is bad camp. The problem is the laws that govern the computer and tractor were written by entertainment lawyers out of LA back in the 90s when they were trying to prevent DVD piracy. They weren't thinking about what would the best agricultural economy look like over the next century. So it's just time to update some of these laws, and I think there's an opportunity for Congress and state legislators to step in and do something about this.