Farmers, Tractors and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act

May 21, 2015

Did anyone ever think that Farmers would need to think about how the copyright laws affect the repair and modification of the operation of their tractors?

Tractors, cars, airplanes and other complex equipment have come a long way in the digital age and are now essentially a complex network of self-contained mechanisms controlled by dedicated onboard computer/software systems.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act generally prohibits “circumvention” of copyright protection systems (called TPM’s) installed by the copyright owner for the purpose of preventing piracy and other unauthorized access to the copyrighted work. This is easy to understand when the goal is to prevent copying of digital versions of music or movies, but what happens when the copyrighted software is the central control system for your tractors?  Who has the right to access, maintain and modify such software?

In recent comments to the Copyright Office in a rule-making procedure to relax the rules to allow “circumvention” in some situations for repair and maintenance of tractors and other vehicles – John Deere opposed in extensive comments including comments to the effect that  “A vehicle owner does not acquire copyrights for software in the vehicle, and cannot properly be considered an ‘owner’ of the vehicle software” and “In the absence of an express written license in conjunction with the purchase of the vehicle, the vehicle owner receives an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle, subject to any warranty limitations, disclaimers or other contractual limitations in the sales contract or documentation.”

According to Deere, the tractor owner is a licensee of the software with limited rights to use the software.  As a rough analogy, think of the rights you have to use the software and programs installed on your home computer.

These comments by Deere caused a stir in the industry, and Deere sent the following letter in an attempt to calm the situation.

Click here for a PDF version of the letter

Where does this go from here?  In some sense this is up to you by getting involved with your farmer and industry groups and letting your voice be heard.

This is probably the beginning rather than the end of these kinds of issues.  Modern digital technology is embedded in controls of communications, machinery and appliances of modern life, and IP rights of the developers are in tension with the demands of the user for access and repair of the embedded software.

Are you ready for the internet of everything?


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