Tractor Owners Using Pirated Firmware To Dodge John Deere's Ham-Fisted Attempt To Monopolize Repair

from the you-don't-own-what-you-buy dept

We've been noting for a while how numerous states have been pushing so-called "right to repair" bills, which would make it easier for consumers to repair their own products and find replacement parts and tools. Not surprisingly, many tech companies have been working overtime to kill these bills. That includes Apple, which recently proclaimed that Nebraska's right to repair bill would turn the state into a nefarious playground for hackers. Opposition also includes Sony and Microsoft, which both tend to enjoy a repair monopoly on their respective video game consoles.

Whether coming from Apple, Sony, or Microsoft, opposition to these bills usually focuses on the three (false) ideas: the bills will make users less safe, somehow "compromise" intellectual property, and open the door to cybersecurity theft.

But it's easy to lose track of what started the recent groundswell of consumer support for these bills: the lowly tractor.

It was John Deere's decision to implement a draconian lockdown on "unauthorized repairs" that has magically turned countless ordinary citizens into technology policy activists. A lengthy EULA the company required customers to sign last October forbids the lion-share of repair or modification of tractors customers thought they owned, simultaneously banning these consumers from suing over "crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software."

Needless to say, most of the company's customers weren't particularly impressed by the restrictions, which let companies monopolize repair, but hurt farmers' livelihoods by forcing them to visit only "authorized" repair shops that may be countless miles away from the farm. As a result, many of these folks have amusingly turned toward using unauthorized tractor firmware pirated and modified in Eastern Europe to free themselves of arbitrary, obnoxious and unnecessary restrictions on what they can do with gear they technically own:

"There's software out there a guy can get his hands on if he looks for it," one farmer and repair mechanic in Nebraska who uses cracked John Deere software told me. "I'm not a big business or anything, but let's say you've got a guy here who has a tractor and something goes wrong with it—the nearest dealership is 40 miles away, but you've got me or a diesel shop a mile away. The only way we can fix things is illegally, which is what's holding back free enterprise more than anything and hampers a farmer's ability to get stuff done, too."

As a result, tractor owners visit various forums to not only buy pirated and modified repair software, but the cables required to perform diagnostics and install updates. In 2015, we noted how the Library of Congress authorized some vehicle-focused exemptions allowing for this kind of legal tinkering, but saddled the exemptions will all manner of bizarre and unnecessary caveats. Right around that time, John Deere began requiring that farmers sign licensing agreements giving the company the right to sue for breach of contract (they haven't yet).

Of course, if you ask the company why a "black market" specifically tailored for annoyed farmers has blossomed, you're simply told there's nothing to see here, there are no repair issues, and the company makes it perfectly easy for farmers to diagnose issues and repair their vehicles. But actual farmers and folks fighting for right to repair legislation say that's simply not the case. For example, tractor owners who say they modify their tractors using anaerobic digesters to fuel them with pig methane, say they're technically violating John Deere's terms of service:

"They require buyers to accept an End User License Agreement that disallows all of the activities they say are allowed in their statement," (Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of Repair.org) said. "Deere is a monopolist and has systematically taken over the role of equipment owner, despite having been paid fairly and fully for equipment. Their claims to control equipment post-purchase are inconsistent with all aspects of ownership including accounting, taxation, and transfer of products into the secondary market."

These farmers also say they're worried that if a company like John Deere is sold, they could wind up stuck without the ability to modify or repair older hardware they likely made a significant investment in. As a result, these annoyed farmers are the cornerstone of the right to repair push currently winding its way through the Nebraska, New York, Minnesota, Wyoming, Tennessee, Kansas, Massachusetts, and Illinois state legislatures. And the companies fighting these bills simply refuse to publicly acknowledge they're doing so, which tells you everything you need to know about the "value" these restrictions actually provide.


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  • icon
    TomStone (profile), 29 Mar 2017 @ 5:06pm

    Right to repair

    If you think a John Deere tractor is "lowly" you are probably a "Breatharian".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Mar 2017 @ 5:13pm

    Who'da thunk it...

    Now farmers are the latest group "going dark".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Mar 2017 @ 5:26pm

    Perspective

    Sooo... I have a farm. I rent the land out for someone with the equipment to farm it economically, so I have no direct recent experience with how much a combine costs. Not cheap, I know. The last one I bought (used, in poor condition) was in 1979, and that cost a bit over $40,000 with no attachments and no equipment other than the tractor itself.

    These days, it's not uncommon to hear that it takes more than a quarter of a million dollars. I did find this link to base current pricing on;

    http://www.news-gazette.com/news/business/2014-11-02/how-much-combine-window.html

    So, with add ons, $600,000 isn't unusual.

    Not that John Deere is the only corp acting this way, others have seen how it works and are coping it. This isn't any more than ink jet cartridges writ somewhat larger, and without going into selling the device at, or just below, the actual cost of manufacture.

    Other manufacturers in other types of markets are doing this as well. Nothing beats the "sunk cost" fallacy quite like getting around the Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act, and of course, there's nothing to build customer loyalty quite like suing them down to their toenail lint.

    Some will opine "well, just buy from someone that doesn't do this." Huh uh. Well, pretty much, they all are or will shortly. Not much will beat a hog to the trough except the sheriff serving foreclosure papers.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnuson%E2%80%93Moss_Warranty_Act

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      orbitalinsertion (profile), 29 Mar 2017 @ 5:55pm

      Re: Perspective

      They only want to serve large corporate farms, despite all the little flyers and cards they produce with pretty pictures and quotes or poems about family farming being the cornerstone of society.

      Since their initial strategy of mega-merging and then building things no one can afford has petered out, now they have this.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Mar 2017 @ 5:36pm

    Self Inflicted Injury

    John Deere has been playing these proprietary lock-in games for years. That has been well-known in the farming community. Some farmers were foolish enough to buy non-repairable tractors, from John Deere (or anybody else), then their tractors broke. Then they discovered that buying something non-repairable was not a good idea. It is a shame they had to learn their lesson the hard way.

    Do not buy crippled stuff, people, from anybody. If some manufacturer declines to make their best effort to give you a repairable object, then that manufacturer is not worth your custom. DO NOT BUY. Whether or not proprietary lock-in games are being played should be a primary consideration at initial purchase time. Do not expect to be able to make dumb purchasing decisions then have your local legislature, or anybody else, bail you out. Purchasers of Apple, John Deere, Lexmark and all the others, please note well.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 29 Mar 2017 @ 6:03pm

      Re: Self Inflicted Injury

      Yeah, sorry to burst your bubble, but it's not just John Deere pulling these shenanagans. Most equipment manufacturers with computerized control systems act the same way. Good luck avoiding them. It's still a major operation in dentistry to keep computer servicing on automobiles open and transparent (yeah, good luck). Replacing computer modules on a car still requires a trip to the dealership for programming and code integration even WITH state laws requiring them to allow third party maintanance! If you're not going to "buy crippled stuff", you'll have to forgo all smart phones, tablets (including Android because of driver problems, let alone Apple), anything with a proprietary BIOS/UEFI firmware, any AMD or Intel X86_64 hardware, all automobiles since the late 80s (they all have computers in them with proprietary code), probably all modern commercial tractors, nearly all printers after the dot matrix line printers... I can go on and on for things to avoid. Basically go live in a cabin off the grid, and buy an all analog radio, (even ham radios these days from the commercial vendors usually have proprietary firmware).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 29 Mar 2017 @ 6:27pm

        Re: Re: Self Inflicted Injury

        Yes, there are lots of bad manufacturers. But there are some good ones, it is a matter of finding them. Google is your friend. You CAN have a 21st century lifestyle without subjecting yourself to crippled stuff. But you have to WANT to do it. Taking the path of least resistance will not work.

        Remember the razor blade business model. Decide what to buy carefully; work out the total cost of ownership. Often, second-tier manufacturers are less arrogant and are prepared to be nice to their customers. Yes you can have nice things which work well and are repairable. But it takes caution at initial purchase time. Just nipping down to the shops and buying the first thing you see on the shelf, is not going to cut it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 29 Mar 2017 @ 6:10pm

    Farmers. What a bunch of leftist freetards out to steal from creators.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Mar 2017 @ 6:13pm

    I can't wait for this to be in the DLC for Farming Simulator 2018.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Mar 2017 @ 7:03pm

    Can original be restored if needed?

    I wonder if they can save the original firmware and flash it back if they do actually need warranty work?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 29 Mar 2017 @ 7:04pm

    It's time...

    for a Deere John letter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Alexander, 29 Mar 2017 @ 8:24pm

    Like we told you...

    This is basically the same thing that the snooping maximalists found out.
    We told you that in principal this was bad, and you just huffed about crazy nerd libtards. Now you can see how this is bad _in practise_ because you didn't think it could happen to you.
    We told you so.
    Now,
    Do you want to talk about the solution...?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Mar 2017 @ 8:39pm

    So even farmers are jumping the ship? (Or is that jumping onto the ship?)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dariusz G. Jagielski, 30 Mar 2017 @ 4:23am

    And they use Polish and Ukrainian soft to do that

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Mar 2017 @ 4:30am

    One Word

    Kubota

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ShadowNinja (profile), 30 Mar 2017 @ 6:10am

    The obvious fix

    There's an obvious fix to the dirty businesses tactics of companies like John Deere and others, make it effectively illegal by making it no longer financially viable.

    If companies want to claim you don't actually own the stuff and are just renting or leasing it from them, then some things need to change to make it just like actual renting.

    • All repairs, taxes, and fees are paid by the 'actual' owner John Deere/etc, and not the renter.

    • Nobody pays for the entire cost of the car up front when renting it, so John Deere and others can't charge the full value of a car or tractor up front while still insisting to own it.

    • And of course, John Deere and others must clearly say up front you are renting their stuff and NOT buying it. Failure to do so makes them guilty of deceptive marketing practices, and open to whatever penalties there are already on the books for doing so.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 30 Mar 2017 @ 6:12am

    Is the firmware hackable?

    How feasible is it that a foreign power could hack the firmware so that all farm equipment stops working, say, right when harvest time hits?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Mar 2017 @ 9:48am

      Re: Is the firmware hackable?

      Possibly if it is programmed into the firmware but not by hacking over a network. Sounds like a little bit of a process to even get to the firmware.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Mar 2017 @ 5:58pm

      Re: Is the firmware hackable?

      If your tractor is a Internet of Things (that have stupid security holes and do not need internet access this badly), then maybe.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 30 Mar 2017 @ 6:14am

    2 words: farmers strike.

    This would make rules restricting their ownership of the equipment vanish like magic. The power to force governments to work for the people are in the hands of the people. Cross your arms and simply stop the country until they do what's needed.

    Of course this isn't happening when instead of actually thinking of the country people are worried attacking Team Blue or Team Red.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Spica, 30 Mar 2017 @ 9:25am

      Re:

      2 words: farmers strike.

      I assume you are talking about small, individual farmers. Considering that most US agricultural is now owned by global mega-corps like Archer Daniels Midland, I don't see a strike by small farmers having much effect.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Mar 2017 @ 10:11am

    Required?

    A lengthy EULA the company required customers to sign last October

    Is this only new customers? How would they "require" it of existing customers?

    The linked article contains this lie: "The agreement applies to anyone who turns the key or otherwise uses a John Deere tractor with embedded software." An arbitrary action like turning a key does not bind someone to a contract they've never seen. Maybe the owner signed something, but I didn't and if I go to a farm and turn the key this EULA has no bearing on me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Mar 2017 @ 1:18pm

    Is there an XDA forum for the firmware yet?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Rapnel (profile), 30 Mar 2017 @ 5:55pm

    Yeah man, fuck JD, the tractor races are here next week so hook up the friggen cable and lets worry about the bails later. We got this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Nonya, 31 Mar 2017 @ 10:39am

    Nothing new

    This is nothing new, this kind of bullshit has been going on with gaming consoles and other electronics for years! Whats needed are clear definitions of Ownership, and Renting, and the rights and responsibilities of each. And make everyone clearly state and follow one definition or the other!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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