One topic has dominated the online blogs of ag machinery editors in the past couple of weeks. It’s the sudden debate over what machinery ownership really means in the age of digital technology.
The resulting controversy has generated pages of online reader comments. It seems questioning what ownership means has touched a nerve. I think that’s because farmers, by and large, still take great pride in ownership of their tractors and farm equipment fleets. To suggest they may not really own those things in the way they thought they did cuts to the quick.
But the whole discussion seems to be a bit nuts.
In case you missed it, here’s what’s going on. An online article in Wired Magazine posted to the web in late April claimed that lawyers for John Deere have stated in a recent copyright court filing that the company retains ownership of proprietary systems in its tractors and only offers “an implied licence for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle”.
(I haven’t independently verified the accuracy of that, but no one seems to dispute it.)
You can image the kind of reaction farmers would have after finding out they only get an implied licence to operate their high-dollar machines. I wonder if it’s that blunt, legalese copyright wording that has caused the kind of outrage some have expressed at the idea more than a logical consideration of what it really means?
In a statement to the Brownfield Ag News, Deere’s Media relations manager, Barry Nelson, responded to the Wired article, saying buyers absolutely do own their green tractors. No question about it. It’s just the software code built into the ECUs of those tractors the brand wants to protect. To help explain things, Nelson used the analogy of buying a book. You own it, but you don’t own the story, and you can’t copy, rewrite or redistribute it.
Clearly, this isn’t a new concept.
In that Wired article, the author claims to have tried to access a tractor ECU in order to bypass a faulty sensor, but the system wouldn’t let him in without the proprietary password. The article also points out that it isn’t just Deere applying for patent protection on vehicle management systems. Automakers like GM are too. In reality, most major machine, truck and automakers have for some time now had proprietary software they claim perpetual ownership of, and they don’t want anybody, especially backyard mechanics, playing with it.
In the Wired article, the author was actually trying to modify the code, to change the way the tractor ECU responded to data. That’s far more than a typical repair. The password protection in this case maintained the integrity of the tractor’s software.
Anyone who owns or ever will own machinery should be pretty happy that author couldn’t tap into the ECU and modify it.
The computer is the brain of the machine. If it fails, all you have left is a very big and very expensive piece of yard art. For as much as the author of the Wired article rails against the idea of limited-access, proprietary software, making sure people keep their fingers out of it may actually benefit owners—and future owners—even more than the brand that built the machine.
Imagine some clown going into the code, messing with it and inadvertently disabling some feature that protects a critical system, leaving a component in the machine prone to repeated self destruction. In all probability, the owner would turn to Deere—or whatever manufacturer is involved—for compensation. Or worse yet, that tinkering owner, knowing the tractor now no longer behaves itself, just sends it to auction for the next unsuspecting person to deal with.
Buyers who choose a particular model of tractor, car or truck usually do so because they want what that particular machine has to offer. They want the power, performance, fuel economy or something else that the manufacturer designed into it. And that applies to used vehicle buyers too. Anyone buying used, computerized machinery needs to be reassured that the ECU still works the way it was designed to. That means you can’t have people getting into that machine’s brain and altering its personality. Unless you limit access to it in the first place, how could anyone possibly verify that?
These days the value of equipment—even used stuff—is just too high to expose buyers to unnecessary risks. I don’t really like the idea of corporations retaining some measure of ownership of the things I buy. But in this case, it may be the most sensible and best way to go for manufacturers and those of us who buy the expensive machines and vehicles they sell.
So far, I haven’t hear anyone come forward with a better idea.