DIY Tractor Repair Runs Afoul of Copyright Law

The iconic image of the American farmer is one who works the land, milks cows and is self-reliant enough to fix the tractor. But like a lot of mechanical items, tractors are increasingly run by computer software. Now, farmers are hitting up against an obscure provision of copyright law that makes it illegal to repair machinery run by software.

Dave Alford considers himself a small farmer — he’s got 1,000 acres in San Luis Obispo along the central coast of California. “You spend so much of your time in agriculture fixing things,” Alford says. “It’s more economically beneficial to me to fix as much stuff as I can myself.”

In the air conditioned enclosed cabin of his John Deere 8520T tractor are computer screens that monitor the engine. Unfortunately, Alford isn’t allowed to fix it. John Deere has a digital lock on the software that runs his tractor. If something goes wrong with one of his tractors Alford has to take it to an authorized John Deere dealer — the closest is 40 miles away — or a John Deere rep will come visit him.

He could do it himself, but he’d be breaking the law: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, or DMCA. Farm groups, mechanics, security researchers, consumer advocates are all in the midst of fighting for several exceptions.

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