John Deere Clarifies: It's Trying To Abuse Copyright Law To Stop You From Owning Your Own Tractor… Because It Cares About You

from the how-sweet dept

Last month, there was a great Wired article by Kyle Wiens, highlighting how, as part of the DMCA 1201 triennial exemption process, John Deere claimed that you didn’t really own your own tractor, because you were just “licensing” the software piece of it. And, more importantly, it didn’t want the Librarian of Congress to exempt its software, because that would be messing with John Deere’s “property rights.” We wrote about this, and it seems like another prime example of a company misusing the idea of intellectual property by pretending it meant ownership of the underlying content, rather than just the copyright itself.

That story got a tremendous amount of attention — so much that the geniuses in John Deere’s PR department decided they needed to do something. And by “do something” I mean “make the situation worse.” Because, as first noted by Mike Godwin, John Deere sent out a letter to its dealers “responding” to the Wired article in a way that shows that the company doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. You can read the entire letter below, but here are some of the highlights:

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 or to distribute unauthorized copies to others.

Except… no. When you own a book, you do have the right to modify it. It’s your book. And you can redistribute the modified book as well. Yes, it’s true that you can’t make infringing copies of the book and then redistribute them, but that’s totally unrelated to the issue at hand with DMCA 1201. The issue here is solely about modifying. It’s about letting users actually modify the product they bought (which, again, is perfectly legitimate with a book). But, thanks to Section 1201 of the DMCA, it’s not legal when it comes to your John Deere tractor. Because under 1201, if you circumvent the “technical protection measures” that John Deere put over its software, you’ve broken the law — whether or not you made any infringing copies.

That’s the concern that people have here. The right to tinker with the products that they bought. You can do that with a book. But John Deere abuses the law to say you can’t do that with a tractor.

Later in the letter, John Deere plays the “safety” card, but again is really, really confused and pedantic:

Embedded software is designed and tested to ensure equipment works in certain, expected ways. Software modifications increase the risk that equipment will not function as designed. As a result, allowing unqualified individuals to hack or modify equipment software can endanger Deere customers, dealers, and others.

Yes, John Deere is right that it’s tested the software to work as is, but if people want to tinker with it, that’s their right as owners of the damn machines. It’s easy enough to note that tinkering with the tractor you bought voids any warranties and takes John Deere out of the liability zone if something goes wrong. But an outright ban on modifying means that no matter what John Deere says, you don’t own that tractor. Because ownership means that it’s yours and you can absolutely tinker with it however you want — recognizing that there might be consequences.

And, even more importantly, even if everything that John Deere said here was absolutely true and accurate, none of that is a copyright issue, and it’s flat out ridiculous that John Deere believes it’s appropriate to abuse copyright law for this purpose. Nothing in the copyright statute is about making sure your tractor functions the way John Deere wants it to. So, no, sorry, John Deere, your response is not particularly convincing.

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Comments on “John Deere Clarifies: It's Trying To Abuse Copyright Law To Stop You From Owning Your Own Tractor… Because It Cares About You”

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98 Comments
jilocasin (profile) says:

Re: a tiny stretch

Actually I don’t think it’s currently illegal to modify a game console or cable modem that you own.

You are free to paint it a different color, add a cool spoiler, mount it on a roomba, or…..

Oh, you mean modify the software running on the console. Kind of like modifying the software on the tractor.

Actually it isn’t a small stretch, it exactly the same thing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: a tiny stretch

This, this right here.

“If it’s illegal to modify a game console or cable modem that you own, or sell hardware or software intended for such modification, then it would seem that applying the same rule to a tractor is only a tiny stretch.”

Nine kinds of wrong as well. Do we not own the things we buy? Why, no, no we don’t. So why do we buy?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: a tiny stretch

“If it’s illegal to modify a game console or cable modem that you own, or sell hardware or software intended for such modification”

It is not, and never has been, illegal to do these things. It may be a violation of ToS, but not illegal. However, they do hide behind the same non-circumvention clause of the DMCA, so if you have to break security measures to do it, you may be breaking the law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: a tiny stretch

“It is not, and never has been, illegal to do these things.”

Whether technically “illegal” in your opinion or not, people have indeed gone to prison for it. Some examples:

Console-Mod Legality:

“A federal court last week handed down a ten-month prison sentence to a trafficker of “mod chips,” which bypass access control systems of video game consoles so they can play pirated games. Last Friday, in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District Court of Virginia, Judge James C. Cacheris sentenced David M. Rocci to ten months plus a $28,500 fine for his criminal conviction under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act”

source: http://www.dmwmedia.com/news/2003/04/08/mod-chip-trafficker-gets-prison-time-under-digital-copyright-act

Modem-Mod Legality:

“Cable-modem hacker Ryan Harris has been sentenced to three years in prison … Harris, who used the online handle DerEngel, was convicted earlier this year on seven counts of wire fraud in connection to selling hacked cable modems and software”

source: http://www.wired.com/2012/06/ryan-harris-sentencing/

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 a tiny stretch

Although console-modding is considered a DMCA violation, modem-modding is apparently not. Regardless, both are highly illegal.

But in the end, it matters little what the actual laws are. If powerful interests want to put you away, then they’ll find something to charge you with, whether it’s conspiracy, fraud, or whatever else they can creatively construct and try to make fit out of the millions of laws on the books.

ottermaton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 a tiny stretch

But in the end, it matters little what the actual laws are. If powerful interests want to put you away, then they’ll find something to charge you with, whether it’s conspiracy, fraud, or whatever else they can creatively construct and try to make fit out of the millions of laws on the books.

Thanks for proving that your original assertion (“it’s illegal to modify a game console or cable modem that you own”) is exactly, 100% bullshit.

Do you have any clue that what you just said is: modding is not actually illegal, but they will find some other way to fuck you over.

Do you have any idea how stupid you sound?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 a tiny stretch

“Regardless, both are highly illegal.”

Wrong.
Please provide details about these laws you allude to, like state/federal, section/paragraph … that sort of thing – otherwise it’s just bullshit to me.

btw, it matters a lot what the laws actually state, not sure why you think otherwise.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: a tiny stretch

You are missing the forest for the trees. The sentence was for pirating games. The means to do so was the mod. The mod is not in and of itself illegal. Had the mod run custom software it would have been fine.

In the second instance the mod was the means of stealing cable access. The mod itself is again not illegal, how it was used is.

People build things out of their consoles, write custom software to run on them. All of that is legal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Do you guys EVER for a second consider the legal liabilities?

Don’t you think that professional mechanical and software engineers besides lawyers have thought on this?

Do you even grasp that big machinery is dangerous? That playing with software in it is not at all similar to doing so in your little toys?

Just in legal liability, John Deere cannot possibly to any degree authorize others to use modified software.

Techdirt fanboys risk nothing by claiming they know better than those actually responsible. Any of you willing to stake everything you own and will get in future that you’re entirely right on this? Because that’s the risk you expect John Deere to run.

jilocasin (profile) says:

Re: Do you guys EVER for a second consider the legal liabilities?

I think it’s you who should know better.

If purchasers actually own the tractors, then John Deere doesn’t have any additional liability, so long as they work safely and as expected with unmodified software.

If _John_Deere_ actually owns the tractors, then _John_Deere_ is acquiring _additional_ liability over what end users do with their (John Deere’s) equipment.

Here in the United States of America, we have a decades long tradition of modifying cars, motorcycles, even tractor trailers all of which I believe counts as _big_machinery_.

Now I’m not saying that every modification someone has attempted [ever see the rocket strapped to the top of a car] was wise, or without risk. At the same time, it’s been a long time {never} since I’ve heard the CEO of Chevy, Ford, Toyota, etc. complain about the increased liability they suffer under do to the unauthorized modifications made by purchasers of their various products.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Do you guys EVER for a second consider the legal liabilities?

Outright, never, because few companies are stupid enough to come right out and tell people that the ‘purchase’ they thought they made doesn’t actually mean that the buyer owns anything more than a heavily restricted ‘license’.

However, when they claim to own, even after ‘purchase’, the software required for the vehicle to function, then for all intents and purposes they own the tractor. If the software bricks, then so does the tractor, and since they control the software, by extension they own the tractor that it’s on as well.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Do you guys EVER for a second consider the legal liabilities?

So why are all the arguments here “If they own it they can fix it” and such like?

They say “adequate diagnostic codes are already accessible to vehicle owners for diagnostic and repair purposes, without circumvention and without violating the vehicle manufacturer’s copyrights in its software”

So I guess if the software ‘bricks’ you take it to the service centre and get it connected to the diagnostic computer, like you would with your car.

Lord_Unseen (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Do you guys EVER for a second consider the legal liabilities?

Not everybody goes to a “service centre”. I have never once gone to any kind of “authorized agent” or “service centre” to get machines repaired. There’s also the problem that most farms prefer to fix things on site if at all possible because that gets it back in the field faster, making everyone’s life easier. If it requires a “service centre” the farm isn’t operating as smoothly as it should.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Do you guys EVER for a second consider the legal liabilities?

Don’t buy modern equipment, and keep your N#8 wire handy.
It’s the way of the future. I’ve got a friend who is an auto electrician and the majority of his tools now are a multitude of diagnostic computers for different manufacturers , and for the large part if you don’t have the right one the car ain’t getting fixed.

ottermaton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Do you guys EVER for a second consider the legal liabilities?

I’ve got a friend …

Citation needed.

… who is an auto electrician and the majority of his tools now are a multitude of diagnostic computers for different manufacturers , and for the large part if you don’t have the right one the car ain’t getting fixed.

And therein lies the problem. They are attempting to create Vendor Lock-in (which they are absolutely free to try to do), but pretending that going against their corporate strategy (i.e. finding a way to fix the equipment that you OWN without their tools) is in some way illegal is asinine.

Just because you are so willing to prostrate yourself to your corporate masters doesn’t mean that the rest of us are.

ottermaton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:12 Do you guys EVER for a second consider the legal liabilities?

Nice try.

It’s not like everyone can see that the “random” avatar on your comments is exactly the same every single time. It’s comical that you think you can disown the comments you’ve been making by pretending that I have you confused with someone else.

Lord_Unseen (profile) says:

Re: Do you guys EVER for a second consider the legal liabilities?

I guarantee that mechanical and software engineers had no input on whether consumers can modify the software. They have, however, made sure it runs to spec while unmodified. That is what they’ve always done because, as long as someone is running an unmodified tractor, John Deere is liable for any malfunctions. If the customer has modified it, either physically or via software, John Deere can claim no liability. No matter what way you look at it, this is a stupid move on their part.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Do you guys EVER for a second consider the legal liabilities?

Just in legal liability, John Deere cannot possibly to any degree authorize others to use modified software.

As noted in the article:

It’s easy enough to note that tinkering with the tractor you bought voids any warranties and takes John Deere out of the liability zone if something goes wrong.

So to answer your question about wether anyone here considers the legal liabilities: Yes, we do.

The same thing has been set into case law for years concerning automobiles. Ford Motor Co. isn’t liable if you replace the stock carburetor with hi-performance one that causes an engine fire. Why should John Deere be liable if you hack the software and it causes an accident with your tractor?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Do you guys EVER for a second consider the legal liabilities?

If John Deere tells its customers not to modify the software and warns them that they could damage their tractor or die if they do modify the software, that’s enough. If a customer ignores this and modifies it anyway, they aren’t liable any more than they’d be liable if someone replaced the tractor tires with bicycle tires, or filled the tank with propane instead of diesel, or tried to drive it underwater.

And even assuming you’re right and John Deere’s motives are purely liability-related, why should we care? They’re still trying to take away our right to own what we’ve bought. Today it’s tractors, earlier it was coffee pods or watches or textbooks or litter boxes or anti-acne masks. It needs to be fought whenever it comes up.

JMT says:

Re: Do you guys EVER for a second consider the legal liabilities?

Nothing in your little rant comes even close to explaining how this is a COPYRIGHT issue, or why it should be dealt with using COPYRIGHT law. You assume nobody understands the risk or liability issues (quite wrong), while completely missing the point of the article and looking like a bit of a dick in the process.

WorBlux says:

Re: Do you guys EVER for a second consider the legal liabilities?

“Just in legal liability, John Deere cannot possibly to any degree authorize others to use modified software.”

Not necessarily if subsystems are correctly isolated. L4 can make hard guarantees as a hypervisor that could keep and entertainment and GIS/GPS subsystems modifiable while maintaining a minimum responsiveness of control responsiveness and verifying emission compliance.

Nonetheless even if modification is not authorized, it does not follow that it must be denied via every means available. For example even though running a car engine with the catalytic converter removed is a felony doesn’t mean manufacture must weld them onto the frame.

Anonymous Coward says:

Let them own their tractors and pay the owner expenses

So, if I don’t actually own my own tractor, shouldn’t John Deere then be paying for the regular expenses an owner would pay for? Such as fuel and repair costs?

And shouldn’t John Deere be getting insurance on all those tractors they’re renting out? After all, car drivers are required to get car insurance, so why shouldn’t tractor owners, particularly ones renting out their tractors?

Let John Deere ‘own’ their tractors if they want I say, but make sure they’re paying all the expenses a regular owner would be paying on their tractor. After all, a car rental business can’t and shouldn’t escape from those expenses, and neither should John Deere the tractor renter.

Lord_Unseen (profile) says:

Re: This is all very nice a second time but...

Well… No (and duh) John Deere never said “You don’t own your tractor”, that would probably be the quickest case of corporate suicide ever. They did, however, say that you aren’t allowed to modify certain parts of the tractor you supposedly own. Since the classic definition of ownership involves the ability to modify, like a book, or a bag, or even an older tractor, it’s not hard to contend you don’t own your John Deere tractor. So, while they may not have said it in so many words, it’s still the same effect.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: This is all very nice a second time but...

Got a car that was made in the last 10 years? Do you own the rights to the software in that? Is anybody crying about it?

The only reason anyone here is crying about this is because they tacked on the bit about pirating music through the stereo of a modded tractor. This was a mistake, and a broad reach.
All they want is to be allowed to have TPM on their software to protect them from corporate fraud. The rest of this is just bullshit and farts in the wind.

And besides, Hands up who owns a tractor ?

Lord_Unseen (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: This is all very nice a second time but...

Hand

Sorry, I’m in Kansas and tractors are a big deal here. I can tell you it’s not about pirating music (didn’t even know that part). Farmers tend to get pretty pissed if you tell them they can’t tinker with something they own, and that’s what this is about.

Also, I’m not buying that corporate fraud angle. I’m betting it’s more about forcing farmers into “authorized dealers” for repairs, since they can’t modify (or really even know anything about) the software themselves.

Lord_Unseen (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 This is all very nice a second time but...

Read it. Saw the corporate fraud angle kind of half-assedly mentioned to give it a little air of legitimacy. One thing I also read though, is they don’t want “owners of equipment, including Deere competitors or software developers, to access or to hack Deere’s protected software to repair, diagnose, or modify any vehicle software.”

Yes, they do throw in the “competitors” remark, however, it’s clear from that sentence what they think of “owners”. You may not diagnose or repair your John Deere product. You must take it to an authorized dealer for service. Any repair where we are not getting a kickback is not authorized and is illegal.

At least, that’s what I got.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 This is all very nice a second time but...

Only for the software though, the mechanics are not part of the argument they are making. They do also say that the software is in a replaceable module, so you can get a new module if you need it. (probably without leaving your farm)

Jeremy Lyman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 This is all very nice a second time but...

Nope. But the book/music/program that you license, and don’t own and can’t modify, should be available to you for the duration of the license agreement.

They love to play that trick though, when you try to sell or modify it “sorry, that’s not your property just a license” but when it breaks or is lost or stolen “bad news, your property needs to be replaced”.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: This is all very nice a second time but...

“Got a car that was made in the last 10 years? Do you own the rights to the software in that? Is anybody crying about it?”

Nobody’s crying about not having the rights to the software. The complaint is that they are abusing copyright law to prevent doing things that are 100% unrelated to copyright.

And yes, cars are increasingly doing the same, and people are complaining about that as well.

JMT says:

Re: Re: Re: This is all very nice a second time but...

“Got a car that was made in the last 10 years? Do you own the rights to the software in that? Is anybody crying about it?”

If auto manufacturers start partitioning the government to use COPYRIGHT law to prevent me altering the software in my 10yo car, then I’ll start crying about it. Until then your attempt at a comparison fails.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: This is all very nice a second time but...

Got a car that was made in the last 10 years? Do you own the rights to the software in that? Is anybody crying about it?

Yes, in fact, our original post on this focused on GM rather than John Deere:

https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20150421/23581430744/gm-says-that-while-you-may-own-your-car-it-owns-software-it-thanks-to-copyright.shtml

Jeremy Lyman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 This is all very nice a second time but...

Again, it’s copyright not modificationright. They’re using laws designed to prevent the illegal act of duplication and commercial distribution, i.e. copyright infringement, and applying them to the completely legal arena of editing or changing my copy.

I usually go back to buying a print of a famous painting. I own this copy. I can paint a mustache on it, change the background, blank it out with white paint, rip the frame off and use it on other art. I can even sell it to someone else. I’m not allowed to duplicate it and sell copies.

Jeremy Lyman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 This is all very nice a second time but...

They’re ABusing the DMCA

Not that it’s all that hard to do, the DMCA lends itself very nicely to stripping consumer rights in the name of copyright protection. Just slap some DRM on there and yell “infringement” and suddenly you have absolute power.

I’m no expert, but you’d think these DRM geniuses could come up with a “golden DRM” that lets them stop infringement while not trampling all over our ownership rights. /s

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 This is all very nice a second time but...

You’ve misspelled “abusing” again.

Here’s why it’s abuse: John Deere’s own explanation for not wanting an exemption to the anti-circumvention clause primarily rests on a consumer safety argument. Consumer safety is not even remotely the purpose of copyright, so using copyright law for this is an abuse of the law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 This is all very nice a second time but...

Mike,
You should move to New Zealand before the TPP happens, we’ve got everything you want. Software can’t be copyrighted, fair use is proscribed, i:e the law lays out how you can use things, not the court. You can disable DRM. We have a toothless 3 strikes , but it only relates to peer to peer – meaning we can legally download from any single source, like dropbox or youtube etc, and it costs the copyright holder $25 a pop to send an infringement notice-no surprises-nobody does, except Universal Music (and I think even they’ve stopped now). You can format shift. Copyright is life plus 50 years. I’m not sure but Mickey Mouse may even be public domain here, George Orwell and Ian Flemming are, and Elvis. And you could go an ride a helicopter with Kim Dotcom.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This is all very nice a second time but...

But they did say: “you can’t modify something you ‘own'”… which in itself is basically telling you that you don’t own your tractor.

It’s like Ferrari telling you that you aren’t allowed to paint your car whatever color you want (hint: they do this).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 This is all very nice a second time but...

I knew someone was going to answer “deadmau5”.

There’s a real reading comprehension problem amongst Techdirt readers.
Where in that article does it say you can’t have a non-red Ferrari?

And why, if I had the money, could I buy one in any of 36 colours, if It had to be red?

That is about replacing the Ferrari logo with something else – re-branding.

Jeremy Lyman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 This is all very nice a second time but...

Except that it’s still abusing unrelated laws to exert control over property that they’ve ostensibly sold to someone else. You can scrape off any and all logos from your property and any trademark suit they throw at you for NOT displaying their logo on your things is laughable.

Just like a copyright infringement suit for changing your property to NOT use their copyrighted program should be laughable.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 This is all very nice a second time but...

I agree. Deadmau5 however caved in, removed the logo and bought a McLaren apparently. So who knows, one guy’s been sent papers and caved, I doubt there’ll be anyone else who wants to paint their Ferrari like that, so that court case will likely never happen.

Majlogon (profile) says:

Computer tech

Ya know, it’s strange… I’ve been an automotive tech for almost 40 years… I stay up with the latest trends and tech, carry the latest diagnostic tools, and maintain a current level of training. I carry a degree in Electrical Engineering, and am a Professor of Robotics Technology. Now, here comes some idiot to tell me that I am not qualified to “modify” a vehicle, be it a tractor, car or kids scooter not because I am not qualified, but, rather, that I am not PERMITTED. So, John Deere, here is what I suggest: Go back to building tractors with TWO CYLINDERS. Yes, I’m sure, Mr. Deere, that you remember those. Otherwise, when you “license” your tractor to me, you can also pay for the tires, the maintenance, the gasoline, and the insurance. That way, your “property” will be truly protected.

Meanwhile, I WILL modify what I OWN if I FEEL LIKE IT.

Anonymous Coward says:

In order to have any meaningful discussion tied to reality and avoiding moral panics, it is important to lay out a complete set of relevant facts. Perhaps someone would be so kind as to describe each of the software packages associated with, for example, a JD combine, and the functions of each such package.

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