Consumer Rights

John Deere Responds to Copyright Mess It Made

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article for Wired criticizing John Deere’s assertion that farmers shouldn’t be allowed to access the programming in their own tractors—not even for the purpose of repair, modification, or diagnosis.

Why? Because, according to John Deere, the programming in a tractor is copyrighted: it belongs to John Deere—not to farmers. And farmers aren’t allowed to touch that programming. Or change it. Or even look at it sideways. Not without finding themselves on the wrong side of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

I was, admittedly, less than genteel in my assessment of John Deere’s brave new definition of ownership under modern copyright law:

In a particularly spectacular display of corporate delusion, John Deere—the world’s largest agricultural machinery maker—told the Copyright Office that farmers don’t own their tractors. Because computer code snakes through the DNA of modern tractors, farmers receive ‘an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.’

It’s John Deere’s tractor, folks. You’re just driving it.

The op-ed sparked a good deal of public furor—and apparently, John Deere felt the need to clarify a few things to its dealer network. Here’s what they had to say:

Letter from John Deere to its customers about the DMCA
Initially spotted by Mike Godwin.

So, to sum up: Farmers sort of own their tractors—just not the part that actually makes the tractor work. As John Deere points out: “Similar to a car or computer, ownership of equipment does not include the right to copy, modify or distribute software that is embedded in that equipment. A purchaser may own a book, but he/she does not have a right to copy the book, to modify the book …” Except that you do have the right to modify your own copy of a book. If you didn’t, every single owner of a dog-eared, scrawled-in, highlighted novel would be in prison for copyright violation right now.

Yes, John Deere. Thanks for making my point. It is just like books: Farmers should have the right to modify their copy of John Deere’s programming. Because that tractor belongs to the farmer—not to John Deere.

And that’s exactly what I’ll tell the Copyright Office when I testify at their DMCA hearing in Los Angeles next week.

**Header image: “Tractors at the Fairgrounds in Plain City, Ohio” by Dave Unbar. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons**