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.