If You Can’t Fix It, You Don’t Own It!

I read an article recently about farmers raising the demand for older tractors. The reason? A new tractor can easily cost $100,000, and that’s for a mid-range model. That’s not the real issue, though. The real issue is when some $2 electronic doohickey fails right in the middle of harvest season; You can’t exactly tow your combine down to the dealer, so the factory has to send a specialist out to diagnose and repair it… And that $100,000 investment sits idle for several days, right when it’s needed most.

Farmers are, as a rule, very self-sufficient people that often repair their own stuff. But when your tractor, or your truck, is a rolling computer and you’re at the mercy of the factory and the dealer, that’s no longer possible.

The price of older tractors is going up because smaller farmers want something they can repair in the field, themselves, instead of waiting for the factory rep to show up in his own good time. No longer happy with just selling you the product, they want full control over it for life, Including telling you when it’s no longer fixable, because they’ve stopped supporting it.

Manufacturers like John Deere can get away with this because of something called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA for short.  As is true of many things, the DMCA seemed like a good idea when it was passed in 1998. It’s intent was to bring copyright law into the 21st Century by addressing things such as Operating Systems and digital files.

This law has since been excoriated as one of the worst attacks on Freedom, ever. It turns out that bypassing a manufacturer’s security on, say, a tractor’s on-board engine management software in order to repair it is considered by this law to be a breach of copyright, and thus a crime. If a farmer changes the engine timing on his own tractor, that makes him a criminal.

Because it turns out that Farmer Jones doesn’t own his own tractor. Oh, sure, he owns the chassis, engine, and tires, and he’s the one who has to make payments on it, insure it, and buy fuel and oil for it, but John Deere owns the software code that makes it run, without which it’s just a very expensive lawn ornament.

This needs to change. If I pay money for something, I expect to own all of it, and be allowed to modify it to my heart’s content. What if book publishers made it a crime to underline passages in their books and fold over the pages?

This is why there is an Open-Source movement. Open-Source means that anybody with the knowledge to do so may modify the code. The author of the code can still sell the software, so he still makes money, and he still owns the copyright (Like the book publisher), but if someone else needs/wants to modify it, it can be done, legally. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is at the vanguard of this movement.

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