The link came into my office last week while I was buried under a load of management 'stuff' to dig through, so I'm a little slow on the uptake. Yet it was clear from the editorial colleague that sent me the information there would be buzz. The story "We Can't Let John Deere Destroy the Very Idea of Ownership" was posted on the Wired.com website last week. And from that came a firestorm of social media dreck.
Interestingly most of the babble was from non-farmers, but the author himself is a founder of the Digital Right to Repair Coalition (which he acknowledges in his commentary) and believes that anything you own you get to tinker with. Previous blogs by the author have harped on his inability to fix things because the software controls were too tight, and the target: John Deere.
In his latest editorial diatribe - he uses some pretty strident language - the author says you don't own your tractor. Not true says a spokesperson for John Deere: "We want to set the record straight. If you buy a piece of equipment from John Deere you own it, first and foremost," says Barry Nelson, who heads up communications for the ag firm.
The story, which targeted John Deere in the headline, and frankly throughout, does note that most manufacturers that make equipment that includes software hold the copyright to that software. In essence, you own the vehicle, but you can't change/copy/tinker with the software. That may challenge the notion of farmer inventors bending iron to make a new implement, but when it comes to complex machinery with Tier 4 final emissions, precision ag interfaces (ISOBUS) and complex Canbus systems for sensor and tech integration, tinkering can be a challenge.
Of course the Wired author wants to be able to tinker, to bypass a faulty sensor from time to time, or some other task. That's a no-no says manufacturers - and that goes well beyond John Deere to General Motors, to Boeing (and please don't touch the software on that plane). In this instance, the Wired author just turned John Deere into a whipping boy in a magazine read by people who barely know where their food is grown. He could easily have made it about Chevy - you don't own that software either (even in that new Stingray).
The key here is copyright control of the intellectual property companies create to make their machines, cars, airplanes, work better. The Wired author argues that companies should not be able to stand behind copyright law to keep you from tinkering with your machine. And he's adamant that you should have that right. It's his opinion.
Some of you reading this will agree with that idea. Most of you who want to tinker are voting with your pocketbooks snapping up lower-tech machines at farm auctions. Interestingly the author notes that newer equipment sales are sliding and blames the tech, I blame $3.50 corn.
Charlie O'Brien, senior vice president, Association of Equipment Manufacturers, the industry trade group for agriculture and construction, notes that this idea of copyright protection "is not new stuff. You look around my office, I have a phone, a computer. All of those things have software on them and I own this stuff, but I never thought I had rights to the software."
For the tinkerers reading this, I know there are days you struggle with rebooting the tractor. Open source code does exist in the computer world, but all of the farm tech you're buying today has proprietary code. That's why companies have to reach agreements so one piece of equipment can talk to another.
Look at the results though. That high-tech, proprietary, software allows new machines to operate with fuel-sipping performance levels not seen in the past. You can gather data (which the Wired author seems to think is impossible, but I've seen plenty of maps from third-party providers) to create awesome maps and in-depth analysis for your operation. And you can sit in the cab as the machine drives itself more accurately through the field than you can.
The Wired author targeted John Deere, and it's not the first time given some of the other things he's written. Yet, he doesn't really note all major farm equipment manufacturers - Agco, Case IH, New Holland and others - have proprietary software on their equipment. You still own the tractor/combine/hay baler to maintain, trade and sell. Just don't tinker with the software.
If you think differently feel free to comment below.