John Deere is notorious for arguing that farmers who buy its tractors actually “license” them because Deere still owns the copyright to the tractors’ software; in 2015, the US Copyright Office affirmed that farmers were allowed to jailbreak their tractors to effect repairs and modifications.
But the Copyright Office doesn’t have the legal power to allow anyone to make a tool to make such modifications, which makes the Copyright Office exemption pretty symbolic.
Nevertheless, Deere responded immediately to the Copyright Office ruling by amending the EULA for its tractors to prohibit any such modification, third party repairs, etc, and made farmers click through the EULA and “agree” to it in order to start up their tractors.
Now, farmers find themselves in desperate straits. Not only does Deere gouge them on repairs (“$230, plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out and plug a connector into their USB port to authorize [a user-swapped] part”), but the repair shops can be far away or busy, and thus a half-million dollar tractor can sit immobilized while a farmer frets about getting his crops in.
To add insult to injury, the new Heavy Duty Scanner Deere EULA makes farmers indemnify the company against “crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software.”
But farmers need to get their crops in, and they expect to be able to go on fixing, tuning and modifying their tractors as they’ve done since tractors were invented, and so they are turning to the Ukrainian black market. Breaking DRM is illegal in Ukraine, but the law is less vigorously enforced, so Ukrainian manufacturers offer downloadable cracks that allow farmers to seize control of their tractors, violating their license agreements but saving their crops and their money.
Motherboard’s Jason Koebler bought his way into the paid, invite-only forums where farmers trade advice and suggestions on fixing, tuning and improving their tractors, and lived to tell the tale, which is a fascinating story of fake parts sold from ag-business websites that used to launder payments for login codes to the illegal tractor underground.
Nebraska and four other states are considering “right to repair” legislation that would do away with this ugly business in favor of just, you know, letting farmers treat their tractors as though they belonged to them. This legislation is being vigorously opposed by an unholy alliance of automotive companies, Apple, and Big Ag, all of whom want to keep their cushy, government-enforced monopolies intact.
I went searching for one of the forums where pirated John Deere Diagnostics Kit firmware is sold. After I found it, I couldn’t do much of anything without joining. I was sent an email with instructions, which required me to buy a $25 dummy diagnostic part from a third-party website. Instead of the part, I was sent a code to join the forum.
Once I was on it, I found dozens of threads from farmers desperate to fix and modify their own tractors. According to people on the forums and the farmers who use it, much of the software is cracked in Eastern European countries such as Poland and Ukraine and then sold back to farmers in the United States.