DIY Tractor Repair Runs Afoul Of Copyright Law

Digital Millennium Copyright Act sealIn days past, when Fords were entirely mechanical. A rough-running tractor was felt in the seat of the pants. It invited a climb-down to check the usual suspects: carb adjustments, timing, dirty plugs. We diagnosed and repaired mostly by ear. Today life is much more complicated for owners of modern tractors.

Today’s modern tractors employ feedback loops to monitor and manage performance. Silicon chips regulate engine function. GPS guides the plow. Indeed every year it seems that ‘intelligent’ machinery like the modern tractor demands less and less of the operator. Farmers need only point the new rig in the right direction.

But technology imposes limitations too. Today we’re prohibited by law from tinkering with the new electronically-managed machinery. So the do-it-yourself approach to maintenance on the modern tractor is a thing of the past, relegated to an occasional tech column in a Ford tractor enthusiast’s magazine.

And it’s all because of an important (but little-known) law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Passed in 1998, DMCA was championed by intellectual property owners who faced the new threat of piracy in the transition to digital. And originally it did seem to apply most obviously to copyrighted recorded materials.

But the DMCA included a prohibition on the circumvention of access-control technologies and that’s had far-reaching effects. Recently National Public Radio touched on the way that the law affects daily life on the farm. Here’s an excerpt:

Alford and I sit in the air conditioned enclosed cabin of his John Deere 8520T tractor. In the cabin are little computer screens that monitor the engine.

“So I can monitor, for example, what my hydraulics are doing that’s running the implement behind me,” Alford says. “I can monitor the regular standard things in an engine.”

And the little computer screen lets him know when something is wrong. Unfortunately, Alford isn’t allowed to fix it. John Deere has a digital lock on the software that runs his tractor. And it won’t give him the key.

We can’t disable copy protection without running afoul of the law, for example; and we can’t tinker with the sophisticated management systems that run today’s tractors.

Indeed the unintended consequences of such broad legislation have spurred a large body of case law and new rules handed down by the the US Copyright Office. But we’re sure that none have specifically addressed the needs of today’s would-be tractor tinkerers!

Have a listen. It’s a great little story about the far-reaching effects of the law down on the farm.