But what this has meant is that tractor owners can’t repair their own tractors—and if they do, they’re in violation of the DMCA. So, if a machine stops working, its owner can’t pop the hood, run some tests, and find out what’s going on; he or she is legally required to take the tractor to a service center (one owned by the manufacturer, since that’s the only entity allowed to analyze the tractor’s issues). This can be expensive and time-consuming, and more to the point, unnecessary—at least according to farmers in several states, who are lobbying to force tractor manufacturers make their diagnostic tools available to independent repair shops and owners.
So it's slightly different than they want the right to fix their own tractors. They want the government to force the maker to provide the tools to fix them.
If it's a purely mechanical problem rather than a software issue, would the DMCA even come into play?
Here's another story about this.
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.
If something goes wrong with one of his tractors Alford has to take it to an authorized John Deere dealer — the closest one is about 40 miles away — or a John Deere rep has to come visit him. Alford had an issue about a year ago; the tractor belts were loose. He waited a day for the John Deere rep.
"The tech came out and it took him a couple hours to diagnose that there was one small sensor out. And that one small sensor, I think it was a $120 part."
The problem with this setup is that in farming timing is everything. When the soil is soft enough to till you have to go; when the crop is ripe you have to pick it.
"So if you have a small problem that does not allow your tractor to operate and you have downtime it's costing you money and a lot of stress," he says.
You may wonder why Alford doesn't just break that digital lock and get into the software and fix the problems himself. He could, but he'd be breaking the law. It's called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, or DMCA. It was written because movie studios were worried that people would break the digital locks on DVDs, make copies and pirate them.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that farmers today (in America) are not for the most part poor struggling families trying to eke out a living on a hundred acres. This particular gentleman considers himself to be a "small" farmer.
Alford considers himself a small farmer — he's got 1,000 acres in San Luis Obispo along the central coast of California where he grows snow peas, garbanzo beans, hay and seed crops.
I speak here about that of which I know not, but with 1,000 acres I'm guessing that guy makes pretty good money. People buy these fancy modern tractors that run on software because frankly they are worth it.